And just as inevitably, “doing more” will only make the problem worse. Instead, we should do less. The college-admissions process doesn’t favor the well-heeled because it’s rigged; it favors them because it’s too complex. In that sense, college applications are preparation for the real world, which is overrun with roads and byways so crisscrossed that it is impossible to negotiate them without the kind of professional help only the wealthy can afford.
In the case of college admissions, the complexity is dizzying. For students, it can begin even before the application comes together — with endless decisions about which classes to take, which tests to sit for, and which extracurriculars to pursue. (For some elements of our society, it can even begin with which preschool to attend.) Add to that the questions of which essays to write, which recommendations to solicit, which deadlines to aim for, as well as a host of other considerations. The result is a million different permutations, with only a tiny fraction likely to lead to a fat envelope.
Then there is the inscrutable calculus on the side of the universities. Colleges are theoretically academic institutions, but intellectual merit is only a small piece of the admissions puzzle. Once you factor in the elaborate considerations added to serve myriad (and sometimes competing) ends — from racial and geographical diversity to athletic competitiveness, social consciousness, alumni satisfaction and donor support — no one really knows why one student makes the cut and another doesn’t. As a group of Asian American students suing Harvard over alleged discrimination has learned, these mysterious formulas are a fiercely guarded secret.
As a result, any applicant with inside knowledge of these calculations has a significant edge. But private college consultants, or tuition for schools with strong guidance programs, aren’t cheap. This is a large part of why wealthy applicants have an advantage: While less well-off students may never learn all of these intricacies, richer families can afford the expertise needed to navigate a nebulous and convoluted process.
This phenomenon is hardly limited to college admissions. Consider, for example, the tangled web of red tape facing U.S. businesses. Often, these rules — environmental regulations, safety laws, benefits mandates, pay-ratio disclosures, and so on — are, at least theoretically, designed to serve some broader good. But the regulations are often so byzantine and time-consuming that they require lawyers, accountants, compliance officers and consultants — expensive ones — to determine what they actually mean, followed by the costly investments required to comply.
These costs are borne more easily by large, cash-flush conglomerates than they are by small businesses. The result is that intricate regulatory regimes meant to curb the power of big business end up shuttering mom-and-pop competitors — only further privileging the well-heeled incumbents.
The same dynamic is at play in our tax code, which runs thousands of pages and outlines a dizzying collection of deductions, credits, formulas and exclusions. Figuring out how to navigate these potential benefits is overwhelming — so much so that, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, it prevents individuals and companies from taking advantage of billions of dollars in available tax credits. This includes one out of every five people eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, meant to support lower-income working Americans.
You know who is not failing to exploit the nuances of the tax code? The rich. With the help of skilled accountants and financial planners, they’re able to take advantage of the code’s complexity to protect their income and assets from state and federal levies. Meanwhile, many families who can’t afford the time or expertise to solve the tax code’s riddles end up leaving money on the table.
Complexity also favors the rich in financial markets. Fortunes today aren’t made trading in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. They’re made in the elaborate deals put together by hedge funds and private-equity firms, and in the dazzlingly complex investments put together by big banks. These are not games that John Q. Citizen can play; only individuals and institutions with vast wealth can assume the risk and provide the capital needed to participate.
Other examples abound — our legal system, the health-care industry, our immigration laws. Wherever systems have been made more opaque and convoluted to serve specific social aims, it’s worth asking whether those policies don’t, in fact, undermine the goals they are supposed to achieve. As an alternative, leaders of these institutions should try removing the “complexifiers.” What about a simpler, flatter tax code? Or a clear-cut standard for college admissions — such as the Texas law whereby any student in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class is guaranteed admission to state-funded universities?
Such policies are not perfect. But if our goal is a more level playing field, sometimes transparency and simplicity can be the greatest equalizers of all.