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College Admissions Inequality

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

By Anna Jang and Ryan Kim

When looking at the state of the American college system, there are many concerning trends and statistics that suggest inequality throughout the college process. One such statistic is that around 88% of college-age students from the top income quartile enrolled in a four-year college within one year following their high school education. This percentage drops to 47% when looking at those from the lowest quartile. College admission inequality is due to multiple factors, and economic prosperity and racial identity are two main elements that determine success in the admissions process.

It’s no secret that wealth plays a significant role in college admissions, whether during the college prep process or actual admissions. More money allows individuals to hire private counselors to develop one’s college portfolio, improve college essays, and improve SAT and ACT scores, among other advantages. A 2009 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that individuals who received coaching or tutoring from commercial test-prep courses experienced an average SAT score increase of 30 points. A 30 point increase is a significant jolt in an individual’s SAT score, and there are additional studies that correlate paid tutoring with improved standardized test scores. These are significant advantages that are unfortunately a luxury for many. Another example of economic inequality leading to inequality in the college process is the favoritism of an alumni’s child during the applications process. About 42% of college admissions directors have stated that legacy preferences (when colleges favor children of alumni) are accounted for in the admissions process. This is a problem because it creates a cycle in which those who are financially secure or even affluent have a much easier road to college education while those less fortunate or living near the poverty line see a system firmly set against them. In addition, demonstrated interest, which is when an applicant consistently shows their desire to attend a specific university, has been shown to better chances of acceptance. Another survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that “16.9% of four-year colleges say they view demonstrated interest as having “considerable importance” in admissions decisions, and another 33.3% see it as having “moderate importance.” Evidently, demonstrated interest holds value to many colleges across the nation. Yet, to show demonstrated interest, one must invest money into programs offered by the college and possibly even take trips to their campus. This requires a comfortable level of extra wealth that can be spent and this is once again a blatant example of the inequality among applicants based solely on income. Pitting individuals who have had much experience preparing for college applications against individuals who have been forced to use underfunded resources is a system set up for failure. However, this is the reality of college applications of today College acceptance is not solely based on ability; rather, it is often influenced by money and accessibility to resources. Another factor that goes into college applications are extracurriculars. Colleges are known to look at an applicant’s extracurriculars as part of their portfolio and this in itself is also not the most fair. Extracurriculars require money, and more importantly, time. For students who are forced to work during the school year, extracurriculars may simply be too much for them to handle, which is an incredibly unfortunate situation.

To continue, income affects college decisions immensely. American colleges are businesses, and that unfortunately results in inequality among applicants as colleges are looking for individuals they can make the most money off of. As mentioned before, a student’s preparedness for the college admissions process boils down to funds, both personal and academic. As I had previously mentioned before, those with more money experience benefits in the college admissions process. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said about the less fortunate. Not only do low-income households miss out on the privileges that those with extra cash benefit from, but they also may be less informed about how to prepare for college costs and how to apply for financial aid and early admissions. Underfunded districts also have fewer resources and fewer teachers, often meaning that students must figure out the college process independently, without the luxury of academic coaches or test prep.

Inequality among college decisions not only harms low-income and minority students but also affects the school itself. The Early Decision Admissions policy is a plan in which high school students can apply early to a school (usually by November of their senior year). Students often apply Early Decision because it offers a higher chance of admission at the cost of an early deadline and a binding contract. The binding policy means that they must withdraw applications to other schools when accepted, preventing low-income students from comparing financial aid packages with other schools. If the financial aid offered by a student’s school is not enough, they will have to take out student loans or give up their opportunity to go to that school. For students who are in the lower-income bracket, taking out loans is an issue because of the debt that will accumulate and the interests they will have to pay. This can go as far as to limit campus diversity for the school as well. According to a study performed by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping students with financial needs, a meager “16 percent of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an Early Decision basis in the 2013-2014 academic year.” However, further insight on the study shows that 29% of successful students from families who earned more than $250,000 annually applied for Early Decision. Students with families that made a sufficient income were far more likely to apply early since they could afford the higher chance of admission. The Early Decision Admissions policy provides an unfair advantage to wealthy students, and is something that universities should work to remove so that every student, regardless of income or race, will have equal access to education. Some universities have already started taking steps, such as Harvard University who replaced their early-decision policy with an early-action policy that is non-binding in 2006.

There are several ways colleges can begin to combat admissions inequality and increase enrollment of low-income, minority, or first-generation students. One of the most well-known reforms is Affirmative Action, a policy that considers a person’s race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, or religion in an admissions process. Affirmative Action tends to favor individuals who belong to groups that have previously faced discrimination. It aims to create more opportunities in education for underrepresented groups and is a controversial step some colleges have taken to encourage more diversity. Another step has been the implementation of targeted recruitment, where colleges recruit applicants with specific characteristics based on race, ethnicity, etc. Like Affirmative Action, targeted recruitment is a way for colleges to ensure minority students are included in the school community and student body. Many colleges offer scholarships that are financial aid awards based on academic merit and achievement for low-income students. Many students rely on scholarships, and high-achieving students are rewarded with this financial aid. There is also state-sponsored merit aid, which considers the financial needs, merit, etc., of a student and offers financial aid based on the information. By doing so, colleges increase the representation in their student population and open doors for minority students. Inequality in college access has continued to be a growing concern in American society, but it can be countered by increasing access rates of low and middle-income students at selective institutions. Hopefully, in the future, as further changes are implemented, affected students will be able to break the continuous cycle of poverty and lack of educational opportunities.


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