The Hidden Story Behind the College Admissions Bribery Scandal

Among the private universities implicated in the recent admissions bribery scandal, roughly one fifth of total enrollments at Wake Forrest, Georgetown, Yale, and Stanford are children from the “top 1%” of income earners in the country, while only half as many of their enrollments come from the bottom 40% of income earners! At another 38 elite colleges, including four more in the Ivy League — Dartmouth, Princeton, Penn, and Brown — more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent. The hidden story is that regardless of how wealthy students gain admissions, exclusive higher education is one of the most elite propositions in American society. Bribery scandals aside, elite universities are the institutional epicenter of the structural preservation of privilege and wealth in the U.S.

Significantly, these four institutions also have combined tax-free endowments of $55 billion dollars! What this means is that despite access to astounding resources, these institutions still enroll far more “super wealthy” students than financially challenged ones.

And those uber wealthy admits are wedged into a group that is statistically extremely exclusive to begin with. Stanford, for example, admits less than 5% of freshman applicants on a yearly basis, while Yale admits approximately 7%. That exclusivity also happens to be one of the heaviest weighted variables in college rankings. In other words, the most exclusive, highest ranked institutions, are ranked so highly because of how many students they don’t serve!

While the idea of wealthy and powerful parents bribing their children into elite universities is a viscerally disturbing notion, the bigger, hidden reality is the system that ushers the nation’s most privileged applicants through the front door. Keep in mind that in these universities, the “legitimate” application process enrolls twice as many students from just the top 1% of the U.S. population as come from the bottom 40%! The numbers overall are small relative to the entire higher education population, but they are significant relative to who gets into the country’s most elite colleges.

Of course, this reality existed before the bribery scandal and it will continue after the scandal fades, but as Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce notes, the current admissions process is not a meritocracy, it’s an aristocracy, which seems to be one more example of what many see as a “rigged” system. And the problem is not limited to the Ivy League. As he notes in a recent report, “Today’s [public] higher education system is divided into two unequal tracks stratified by race and funding. White students are overrepresented at selective public colleges that are well-funded with high graduation rates, while Blacks and Latinos are funneled into overcrowded and underfunded open-access public colleges with low graduation rates.”

Although bribery gets the headlines, the status quo, every day admissions process may be the real story.

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