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How the College Admissions Scandal Reflects American Inequity and Social Injustice

— March 22, 2019

From emphasizing the SAT to impressive extracurricular activities, college admissions have always favored the wealthy.

The college admissions scandal has prompted a nationwide conversation on the inequity inherent to elite institutions.

Late last week, the Stamford Advocate ran an article examining the role of the SAT in admissions. Taken by high school juniors each spring, the standardized test gauges teens’ aptitude in a variety of fields and disciplines.

Aggregate scores, taken alongside grade point averages, can make or break a college application. But Nicholas Lemann, author of the “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” says the exam is being leveraged in far different ways than was ever intended.

“The real scandal isn’t what is illegal; it’s what is legal,” said Lemann, a professor of journalism and dean emeritus at Columbia University. “You don’t need bribes for the system to be extremely advantageous to people who come from a certain class.”

The SAT, reports the Advocate, was first administered in 1926. Its writers designed the exam to determine students’ ability to succeed at certain universities, rather than as a tell-all for academic aptitude.

Standardized tests like the SAT give colleges a way to judge academic aptitude, but also confer advantages to wealthy students whose parents can afford tutoring and study aids for their children. Image via Pixabay. Public domain.

Lemann says one of the SAT’s original engineers told him that he’d wanted the test to identify students who’d dedicate themselves to public service, regardless of socioeconomic background or their parents’ income. But Lemann observes that high scores on the SAT work to replicate mechanisms of class stratification its founders may have hoped to overturn. After all, those whose results place themselves in the highest percentiles are better positioned to attend elite universities and command greater salaries than those who do not.

“It’s an interesting story of idealism gone awry,” Lemann said.

The Stamford Advocate and Lemann further argue that the SAT “favors people with money.”

“If you announce anything is going to be the key to putting you on the track to where you end up socioeconomically, parents will go to great lengths to confer that quality on their children,” Leman said. “That’s human nature.”

While Lemann ponders the value of standardized tests as a measure of academic mastery, The Atlantic delivers a deeper examination of the sorts of inequality inherent to elite universities.

In ‘What the Scammers got Right About College Admissions,’ Ian Bogost juxtaposes the illegality of cheating in admissions to the immorality of allowing wealthy parents to donate millions to high-profile schools, enhancing their child or children’s preference in process.

But beyond the obvious advantages conferred by finances and ill-disguised philanthropy, Bogost touches on another facet of class stratification. Standardized tests, class rankings and grade point averages are not the end-all, be-all of college admissions. Institutions like Harvard receive applications from so many quantitively qualified candidates that extracurricular accomplishment is necessary for quality applicants.

Fulfilling the demand for “well rounded” teenagers, writes Bogost, “has incited an arms race.”

“The stakes get higher, and everyone who has a shot feels the need to rise to meet them,” Bogost adds, noting that those best situated are those already well-positioned economically.

Accomplished students with poor parents may excel academically, but their families may lack the resources to invest in orchestra lessons, tutoring sessions or the time needed to cart kids back and forth between volunteering obligations and high school internships.

“It’s easy to sidestep the college gantlet when your parents are multimillionaires, like most of the families implicated in Singer’s exam,” Bogost writes. “But it’s also pathetic to scoff at the rich fraudsters just to return to the hopeless scramble that already tilts the scale toward the rich.”


How the SAT became a golden ticket to college — and the source of societal ills

What the Scammers Got Right About College Admissions

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