My first official job after graduating from college was with my alma mater’s admissions department, where I’d been working part time since my freshman year. I gave tours to potential students and their parents who had expressed (unfounded) concerns about gender-neutral bathrooms in the dorms; then, in my final year, I interviewed high schoolers and submitted write-ups about their performance to their official admissions files. When I was given the opportunity to stay on full time as an associate, the decision practically made itself. I’d graduated a year early to save money on tuition, so I didn’t mind hanging around campus for a little while longer. I would live cheaply in staff housing, get swiped into the dining hall by friends who were still students, and start chipping away at my student loans by the time the grace period ended. Win-win, I thought.
My college was a small, private northeastern liberal arts school. It was a good school — not the best or most competitive, but a very respectable institution. I applied there early decision, suspecting that my status as a good-but-not-great student and white girl who needed financial aid might hinder my prospects during regular admission. (Like some other mid- to upper-tier schools, mine was “need-sensitive,” meaning that admissions might factor a student’s ability to pay during down-to-the-wire acceptance decisions.) Three years later, when I graduated, I was happy to encourage other students to follow in my footsteps.
But by the time my contract was up and I’d helped assemble the next year’s class — not only seeing how the sausage was made, but sticking my hands right there in the meaty mess of it — I was deeply disillusioned about my college, the liberal arts, and, frankly, the entire US education system at large. I saw firsthand how colleges and well-intentioned parents alike can play a crucial role in perpetuating inequity in higher education by prioritizing the acceptance of white, wealthy, and male students to meet their bottom line. The real scourge of higher education isn’t affirmative action, but wealthy families who will pay any price to prioritize their own children and keep their family’s elite status alive.
It wasn’t until I saw hundreds of applications cross my desk that I realized how much the deck is stacked against poor students, particularly poor students of color.
So whenever another college admissions scandal blows through the news — as it has this week, with the exposure of a massive college admissions scam involving celebrities and CEOs cheating and bribing their way into admissions acceptances for their children — I think about my brief stint as a college admissions counselor and am filled with rage and sadness anew.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Andrew Lelling, US attorney for Massachusetts, told reporters that this time around, "We're not talking about donating a building … we're talking about fraud,” which elicited plenty of scathing remarks across the internet. Because, as Adam Serwer of the Atlantic tweeted, it’s apparently of vital importance “that rich people buy their way into the Ivy League the old fashioned way.”
It isn’t news that the wealthy hold undue influence over the college admissions process. ProPublica editor Daniel Golden wrote a book about it all the way back in 2006’s The Price of Admission (which included details about Jared Kushner’s curious acceptance into Harvard). And yet the members of my wealthy, majority-white town, and the parents of kids from other wealthy, majority-white towns I visited as an admissions counselor, were far more worried about race-conscious affirmative action policies that aim to increase the numbers of underrepresented races in college student bodies.
It’s long since driven me nuts that so many white middle- and upper-middle-class people who oppose affirmative action can look at a news story like Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli allegedly paying $500,000 to get their daughters into USC as crew recruits, even though they didn’t row crew, and fail to see a clear and distinct connection to the legal, socially acceptable ways wealthier people will stop at nothing to get their children into elite American schools. Such measures, involving increasingly dizzying price tags, ensure that generations of family wealth cycles among a select, privileged few. Or maybe these families do see that connection; they just don’t care. And they’d rather have poorer students without a lifetime of access to top-shelf educational resources fall through the cracks than go without themselves.
I started working as an admissions associate around the same time as the first Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the court found that affirmative action programs must pass a test of “strict scrutiny." (In June 2016, the Court would rule 4–3 that the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas — which had been sued by several high school seniors alleging they’d been denied admission because of the program — was in fact constitutional.) It was also around the time that anti–affirmative action activist Michael Yang filed a complaint with the Department of Education, claiming he’d been denied admission to elite schools because he’s Chinese American.
When affirmative action debates were reaching fever pitch, many of the parents I spoke with trying to get their students into elite institutions were convinced that their son or daughter would be denied admission to a top school because of their whiteness. (That’s always how they’d think of it — their kid already had a hypothetical “spot” that was going to be “taken away from them” in favor of a student from a more diverse background.)
Because I loved my school, it was easy to sell it to students and their parents. Yes, there were a lot of dumb, rich blockheads there — including the heir to a sandwich shop fortune, probably the stupidest person I’ve ever met in my life — but I’d also found community with a small group of brilliant students from the US and around the world, many of whom had been admitted on grants and scholarships and had to work twice as hard to prove themselves worthy of their presence there. Those kids made my time at school worth it for me. So on my tours, in interviews, and on my school visits, I emphasized the good and downplayed the bad.
After the busy fall season of interviews and school visits wound down, my fellow admissions counselors and I had to review applications. We were all given a certain number of applications and assigned scores based on a system that distributed different weights to different elements of a student’s profile: grades, standardized test scores, curriculum rigor, cultural fit, extracurriculars, etc. But it quickly became clear to me that, even though we were given the space to write specific arguments in favor of or against a certain student, the system we used for determining eligibility for admittance was breathtakingly inadequate, unequal, and dehumanizing.
A “good” candidate would be someone who took four years of science, English, math, and a language; they’d have at least a few AP and honors courses with mostly A’s, maybe a B or two; they’d play a sport or be on the debate team or have an after-school job or, ideally, do a bunch of these things; they’d have interviewed with one of us or with any alumni; and their essay wouldn’t be breathtakingly dull and/or pointless (which is, in fact, an extremely high bar for college admissions essays; I read so many poorly written accounts of overcoming sports injuries and life-changing service trips to foreign countries that I was bored to tears). Ideally, this perfect candidate would also be from an underrepresented demographic: the first student in their family to go to college, and/or a student of color, and/or a student from outside the Northeast and California.
But even better? A male student who could pay full tuition.
I knew that college admissions was a messy business. I knew that, even though we claimed to value diversity and offered millions of dollars in financial aid every year, that there were far more white guys wearing salmon shorts on my campus than there are in the general American population. But it wasn’t until I saw hundreds of applications cross my desk that I realized how much the deck is stacked against poor students, particularly poor students of color.
How are you supposed to reject a student just because they don’t have the privilege of living in a good school district, or the luxury of doing activities for enrichment instead of for survival?
That year, I got into an argument with someone from my hometown whose daughter was applying for college that year. He knew what I knew: that white girls who played sports and got good grades and lived in the Northeast were pretty much a dime a dozen at most of the country’s elite schools; she was an incredible student, athlete, and person, but it’s true that she didn’t really stand out. Since male students are applying to colleges at historically low rates, colleges are trying to attract more of them to even out the gender balance in their student body; it’s true that his daughter’s gender wasn’t doing her any favors. (My school was consistently around 60% women and 40% men every year.) His daughter did stand out in one way, however: Her dad had gone to her top choice, making her a legacy admission.
I told him that I’d only been doing admissions for a little while now, and no one could know for certain, but I thought his daughter would probably get in — yes, she’s a girl, but she was also a legacy, which wasn’t only a status symbol, but would indicate to admissions officers that she was more likely to enroll after general admission. (You have to consider, in general admissions rounds, that students will get accepted to a bunch of similar institutions, but they’ll only enroll in one.) Plus, I said: She was a full-pay student.
This touched off a heated debate about affirmative action. He came up with a fictional white, full-pay kid in a neighboring town and asked if I would reject him in favor of a student of color who otherwise had the same profile. We kept going in circles, even after I tried to tell him that admissions doesn’t work that way. Only at the very end of the process, in committee — with the in-between students who weren’t clearly admittable or rejectable — was I literally weighing one student against another. And even then, it wasn’t clear-cut; we’d decide someone was a yes then maybe swap them out for someone else later, debating all the while with fellow counselors, basically shuffling names in a bowl. (That guy’s daughter ended up getting into his — and her — top choice, by the way.)
Debate was necessary for these in-between decisions because it is quite literally impossible to weigh two very different students directly against each other. Or, at least, I found it to be. What if a student from a diverse background and diverse neighborhood (good) has great grades (good) at a noncompetitive high school without honors or AP classes (bad) and no extracurricular activities (bad)? If you add that they didn’t sit for an interview and wrote an uneven essay, this student might not look very remarkable on paper. But what if they didn’t have any extracurricular activities because they had to work after school, or had to take care of their family, or both? What if they didn’t sit for an interview because it was financially impossible to visit campus or get to a city to speak with alumni? And perhaps their school didn’t have a college readiness program — and they couldn’t afford an expensive college tutor — so their application wasn’t the strongest it can be because of outside factors. How are you supposed to reject a student just because they don’t have the privilege of living in a good school district, or the luxury of doing activities for enrichment instead of for survival?
But reject these students I did. All the time. It was the end result of our equation. More often than not, they’d end up in that squishy “maybe, maybe not” category, only to get bumped out of the pile by poor students and/or students of color who were given scholarships to go to prep schools, or attended one of the not-very-good public schools that we already had a relationship with. But poor students from poor schools we barely recognized would, most of the time, not end up standing out enough to make the cut — even the ones who showed glimmers of promise, like a really glowing letter or recommendation from a teacher or counselor advocating for their star student. Neither did most of the students who fit a slightly different profile: poor kids with just okay grades at competitive high schools who needed financial aid. You could guess why these kids performed worse than their richer peers: no money for tutoring; less time for homework; the pressures of crushing inequality. Whether or not these complicating factors were actually present and noted on a college application, these kids still got boiled down to numbers, which fell short. Poor students and/or students of color, should they be admitted, would have to be exceptional.
Poor students and/or students of color, should they be admitted, would have to be exceptional.
The more applications stacked up on my desk, the shorter the bitter-cold winter days got, and the grumpier and more gossipy everybody in the office became, it became clearer and clearer to me that the admissions gold mine was a male student who didn’t need any financial aid. I saw so many of them. Some were actually good and deserving students. But others fit a similarly bleak profile: students with mediocre grades from fancy private schools, with a year of postgrad at prep school to make their GPAs less frightful-looking. Hockey recruits. Lacrosse recruits. Basketball recruits. If these were full-pay kids, they were more likely than not to be admitted. Even though I scored them accurately and fairly according to our guidelines, and even when I wrote scathing rejection notes, I knew in my gut that most of them were going to get in anyway, the same way I knew that some of the poorer students for whom I fiercely advocated were not. It all came down to the limited number of spots for students who need financial aid. If a student could pay full tuition, he was immediately more desirable. (Even though we were specifically looking to beef up the number of men admitted, full-pay, mediocre white girls could sometimes skate by too.)
I had gut feelings about all my in-between applications when we joined forces as a committee in the spring, thanks to my fellow admissions counselors, who’d warned me. Still, nothing quite prepared me to see a few students I’d championed get bumped in favor of another meathead from Exeter or a more desirable student of color from high schools we had relationships with — one of whom expressed views against homosexuality and gay marriage in her application. Even though we had a long, bitter debate about what could happen should this student come to our school and get placed with a gay roommate, she got a letter of acceptance.
That year we assembled a class that was about 70% white, a number that’s stayed just about the same for the past five years — as the race gap in higher ed remains relatively unchallenged. Meanwhile, tuition keeps getting more expensive, and elite colleges (my own and many others) continue to do poorly by their financial aid students and their students of color.
Since my time in admissions, and now that I’m currently deciding whether to have children, I’ve thought a lot about white parents’ roles in perpetuating the inequity of school segregation and sociologist Margaret Hagerman’s work about how well-intentioned white families keep racism alive in in education and beyond. In an 2018 interview with the Atlantic, she told Joe Pinsker that we’re currently living in a moment when “being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent.” That’s because advocating for the very best for your own child — best neighborhoods, best schools, best health care, best quality of life — often means your children are benefiting at other children’s expense. Hagerman thinks “most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.”
Pinsker asked her: Doesn’t that mean ignoring a “biological impulse to look after one’s own”? Maybe, but, Hagerman says: “I think when we look across time and history and geography, we can see that the way that we’re doing it — prioritizing your own child over everyone else — is one way, but I don’t think that has to be the only way.”
These CEOs and celebrities, who had every opportunity to give their children the access to the very best growing up, still went above and beyond to buy their children’s way into elite schools. What would the world look like if everyone from the ultra-rich and beyond thought less about what’s best for their child — which might mean not actually getting everything they’ve ever wanted, even (and especially) if they didn’t deserve it — but what’s best for every child? ●
A previous version of this story misspelled Margaret Hagerman's name.