The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The admissions system is worse than broken. It’s fixed.


The admissions cheating scandal now roiling some of America’s most selective universities is shocking for its brazenness. But it is not truly surprising. Don’t think that a few rogue athletics coaches and corrupt SAT proctors are the end of the story. Favoritism and ill-gotten gains have always been part of the American higher education system.

The shocking part of the scandal is that wealthy, connected people actually thought they had to cheat to get their children into selective colleges. They already have plenty of avenues for “honest” graft: bypassing anything resembling a fair process and rigging the game in their favor. These include separate admissions tracks or standards for legacies — children related to alumni — as well as applicants connected to donors, politicians, and college employees and officials. There’s an inside track and an outside track, and if you don’t know about the inside track, your kids aren’t on it.

Our research shows that 25 percent of all students attending colleges in the two highest tiers of selectivity (about 200 of the most elite colleges in America) have SAT scores that are well below the average test scores of entrants to those institutions. If admissions were based on test scores alone, more than 40 percent of the white students already enrolled in such institutions would have to leave.

So how did they get in? Some are athletes, and some may have other skills or attributes that the admissions committees found desirable. But it’s no coincidence that two-thirds of these students come from families in the top quarter of all family income. They are the sons and daughters of those who already have everything. The diploma that selective colleges hand them is just the cherry on top of their gilded sundae.

When it comes to college, there are two very different Americas. To most of the country, college is supposed to be a meritocracy, a reward to those who have worked the hardest and sharpened their talents. To the wealthy and connected, on the other hand, America’s selective colleges are their birthright, the final step in the youthful coronation to an aristocracy posing as a meritocracy.

The imbalance in higher education favoring the wealthy and white has always been staggering. Since 1995, more than 8 in 10 new white students have enrolled at one of the nation’s 500 most selective colleges. Meanwhile, more than 7 in 10 new enrollments of blacks and Latinos have been in open-access two- and four-year colleges.

At the nation’s public colleges and universities, which we all pay for with our tax dollars, access for minority students is little better. White students occupy nearly two-thirds of the seats at selective public colleges even though they make up barely half of the college-age population. It isn’t that black and Latino students aren’t qualified. They just can’t get in. Of all students who score above average on the SAT or ACT, 31 percent of white students go to a selective college, but only 19 percent of the black and Latino students with the same scores enroll at those elite colleges. It’s not by accident — these colleges have always been an agent in the intergenerational reproduction of race and class privilege.

As is true with most aspects of American society, it is better to be rich than smart. Our research indicates that among the affluent, a kindergartner with test scores in the bottom half has a 7 in 10 chance of reaching the highest class of society and wealth as a young adult. But for white, black, Latino and Asian children from poor families, a kindergartner with test scores in the top half plummets in social and economic status. That child has only a 3 in 10 chance of being in the highest socioeconomic status by the age of 25.

Colleges are not doing enough to correct for these disparities. Their goals, instead, are driven by the all-important rankings that reward colleges for becoming ever-more exclusive, and, therefore, ever further out of reach to average Americans.

Those lucky colleges have been handsomely rewarded: 102 U.S. colleges and universities have endowments of at least $1 billion. Like the wealthy children who attend them, these colleges, too, are not likely to give up their lofty perches.

We have tolerated this system because of the mythology that top schools are indeed reachable. A few unicorns do indeed get into elite colleges every year, but they’re so rare on such campuses they often complain of feeling horribly out of place. But we need to take a longer look at what we have wrought.

The system is worse than broken. It’s fixed.

Anthony P. Carnevale is research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.