Photo: Bill Bramhall
Photo: Bill Bramhall

In college admissions, the rich get in and get enriched

New book calls admissions a rigged game designed to protect elites

After devoting six years to examining college admissions in America, journalist Paul Tough wants you to know it's not a fair system built around merit. Its inherent unfairness can drive parents to extremes, as evidenced by the admissions bribery scandal that ensnared actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

"Their response to understanding that it's a rigged game was to conclude that since there are no rules, they have to make it more rigged for themselves," said Tough in a telephone interview about the book that grew out of his research, "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us."

The fixation of affluent parents on their child's college choice is not baseless, but which school a student attends is most consequential for low-income kids. Economist Raj Chetty found attendance at Ivy League and highly select campuses -- an elite grouping he dubbed Ivy Plus -- provides a greater economic payoff for poor children than rich ones.

"If you’re a rich kid, attending an Ivy Plus college rather than no college at all increases your odds of making it into the top income quintile as an adult earner by a factor of four. So you do get an economic boost from your college education, but it’s not a huge one," writes Tough. "If you’re a poor kid, though, attending an Ivy Plus college rather than no college is truly life-changing. It increases your odds of making it into the top income quintile by a factor of fourteen."

But Tough maintains we've erected barriers that lock lower-income applicants out of those life-changing schools, including the cost. Chetty's study showed that, on average, more than two-thirds of undergraduates at the Ivy Plus colleges grew up rich, while fewer than 4 percent of students grew up poor.

Another obstacle is an over-reliance on standardized test scores to evaluate applicants. Tough's criticisms of the SAT prompted the College Board, which owns the test, to churn out an extensive rebuttal, but he stands by his conclusion that high scores tell us largely which students are the most advantaged.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of test takers receive scores aligned to their high school grades, according to Tough. "For those students, the SAT doesn’t really matter at all — their test scores send exactly the same signal to college-admissions offices that their high school grades do," said Tough, who also wrote “How Children Succeed.”

The problematic applicants, he said, are those whose grades are higher than their SAT scores would predict, and those students are often female, black or Hispanic.

He punctures the argument that admissions tests counterbalance rampant grade inflation, saying, "Wealthy kids get no advantage from their high school grades, but they get a huge boost from their SAT scores. If colleges want to favor wealthy applicants, they should continue to emphasize SAT scores in their admissions decisions. If they want to level the playing field for non-wealthy kids, though, they need to focus on high school grades."

Tough also addresses the opportunity gap, noting that 93 percent of freshmen admitted by Harvard in 2017 took calculus in high school. The problem with AP Calculus becoming a de facto college entrance requirement, he said, is that only 48 percent of U.S. high schools offer it and predominately white schools are nearly twice as likely to have it as those with a lot of black and Latino students.

Over the last few years, Georgia lawmakers have pushed career-tech as an alternative to four-year degrees, but Tough worries young people are being oversold myths, including that $150,000-a-year welding jobs await.

The average salary for experienced welders last year was $41,000, and the jobs often demand associate's degree, he said. Despite the infamous remark by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio that welders out-earn philosophers, people with four-year degrees in philosophy will make more over their lifetimes than holders of associate degrees in welding.

Tough warns that career-tech pathways can be a dead end if students invest too much time and money in low-paying trades or fail to realize how much schooling is actually required. 

"We need to do two things: Provide more funding for technical programs and community colleges, so those students have good and cheap ways to get the skills they need. And the other is to be honest with those young people about these jobs, including the risks and the salaries. Every job is getting more and more complex, more and more technical," he said.

Despite the rising skepticism showing up in recent national surveys -- especially among older Republicans -- about the value of a college degree, the data reinforce the  benefits: Young adults without a college degree were almost four times as likely to be living in poverty than those with one. The unemployment rate for Americans with only a high school diploma is double the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Tough worries Americans are losing faith in higher education as a public good and viewing it as a consumer or even luxury good for which parents have to jostle -- or lie and cheat -- for their child's share of the pie. 

"That is certainly toxic to low-income kids," said Tough, "but it's also pretty toxic for high-income students to feel they are in a life and death struggle with other kids."

Tough will speak at the Atlanta Rotary luncheon on Monday, Oct. 7, and at the University of Georgia in Athens that evening. Then, on Tuesday, Oct. 8, he will speak at the Yates Campus of Drew Charter School Junior/Senior Academy. Go here for details on these three Georgia appearances. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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