The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former NYC schools chancellor: ‘No one should be able to buy admission to college’

Former New York City schools chancellor Harold O. Levy is now the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has given more than $200 million in scholarships to high-achieving students from low-income families, and to organizations that serve such students. Here, he writes his opinion about college admissions.

No One Should Be Able to Buy Admission to College

It’s long past time for selective colleges and universities to ban the practice of allowing wealthy parents to increase their children’s chances of admission by making big donations to the schools. Merit should be more important than money in the stiff competition for admission.

Few colleges acknowledge that parental donations play a role in admissions decisions. But reports have long surfaced to the contrary. When true, they are evidence of rank discrimination against the majority of students, whose parents can’t pay enormous sums to give them an unfair admissions advantage.

The Washington Post reported April 1 in a story by T. Rees Shapiro: “The University of Virginia’s fundraising team for years has sought to help children of wealthy alumni and prominent donors who apply for admission, flagging their cases internally for special handling, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.”

At U-Va., a ‘watch list’ flags VIP applicants for special handling

And in a November article in ProPublica, Senior Editor Daniel Golden noted that he had written about the same problem in his 2006 book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

Golden used President Trump’s future son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner, as an example in that book 11 years ago.

“My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their underachieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations,” Golden wrote in his November article. “It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the Ivy League school. … I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as less than a stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.”

Golden wrote about the same kind of favoritism in admissions in a 2003 article for the Wall Street Journal, stating that admissions consultants told him at the time that the size of parental donations needed to give students an admissions edge ranged from as low as $20,000 to at least $250,000 at one of the top 10 universities in the nation.

Perspective: Why do colleges still give preference to children of alumni?

The special treatment that children of big donors can get in college admissions adds to the many advantages they already enjoy over low-income students. These include attending excellent private or public high schools offering many Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities; benefiting from advice by outstanding college counselors; taking expensive SAT and ACT prep courses; and taking part in educational travel opportunities. And, of course, wealthy students don’t need to worry about getting big scholarships, loans and jobs to finance their educations.

The advantages enjoyed by the affluent contribute to an astounding imbalance among income groups in the enrollment at America’s top colleges and universities that was reported in a study last year by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. A mere 3 percent of these students come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes, while a full 72 percent come from families with the highest 25 percent of incomes.

This disgraceful imbalance shows that the working class is already history at the top schools, the middle class is being squeezed out and the wealthy are dominating. It makes a mockery of the claim by elite colleges to be engines of social mobility for those with the greatest abilities.

Perhaps the most depressing fact that I’ve stumbled across is that 17 percent of the high-achieving, low-income applicants for Cooke Foundation Scholarships ultimately never go to college.

This is amazing, because a student needs top grades, a strong record of community activities, and a record of hard work and achievement in overcoming great obstacles to even be considered for our scholarship. What a tragic waste of brainpower!

The status quo — where far too many children born into poverty are denied equal educational opportunity and go on to spend their lives struggling to get by in low-wage jobs — is not inevitable. Both private and public colleges can and must go back to their original missions of helping students from all economic groups reach their full potential and build a better future for us all.

Vassar and Amherst colleges are models of what schools can do when they want to. They have focused hard on giving the low-income students a break with fair admissions and generous scholarships. Today almost a quarter of their students are eligible for Pell grants, the federal government’s scholarship program for the most-needy students.

If colleges and universities refuse to end the abhorrent and discriminatory favoritism for the rich in admissions, elected officials should consider outlawing the practice in the name of equal treatment for every student seeking a college education. Poverty should no longer hold back bright young people by denying them the chance to attend selective colleges and universities.