By Tatiana Poladko
News about the college admissions scandal this week shattered the romantic picture many hold about college admissions. We want to believe the process is fair and merit-based. We are fine with unadulterated competition for spots at selective colleges. But it is the lengths some families are willing to go —photoshopped pictures, $1.2 million payouts to forge athletic credentials, fake charities, and SAT testing schemes— to get their kid into college that we find unacceptable and appalling.
As the founder of TeenSHARP, a nonprofit organization that has helped low-income students and students of color attend and thrive at our nation’s top colleges for the last decade, I am also disappointed. Though, I contend that we should be more appalled about the unparalleled lengths “out-privileged” students need to go to have a slim chance of attending such colleges.
First, we should recognize that low-income students and students of color are still rare on elite college campuses. The share of African American freshmen at top colleges has been virtually the same for almost 40 years. In many of the most selective colleges, there are more students coming “from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.”
There are certainly many great stories about low-income students who have earned their way into top colleges. TeenSHARP alumna, Alejandra, for example, would have never thought a full scholarship at Wesleyan would be possible after attending a vocational high school. Twin brothers Brandon and Jordan, also TeenSHARP graduates, are collectively receiving over half a million dollars in need-based aid to attend Carleton College. But what gets lost when we share these stories are the inordinate amount of impediments these students must overcome to land in the type of colleges that have been found to accelerate their socio-economic mobility.
This includes the lack of access to rigorous courses and learning environments. A student’s zip code remains a determinant of the quality of their neighborhood schools. This means that alongside our TeenSHARP families, we regularly have to seek better school options, explore financing alternatives (in the cases when these best school options are private schools), advocate for placement in more advanced courses, search for options to supplement school academic offerings, and secure tutors for remediation and acceleration. For example, high school students in one of our college prep programs are with us each Saturday for the full day taking college-level courses and receiving support in core content areas.
Access to extracurricular opportunities is also much harder than it should be for low-income students. For families with means, the making of “merit” starts early with pre-Kindergarten age swimming, ballet, music programs, and more. Parents now spend the highest on their children when they are under the age of 6 and the annual education spending gap between the richest and poorest Americans continues to widen. There’s also research that tells us low-income students are much less likely to play a team sport than their wealthier peers. Similarly, low-income students are much less likely to own an instrument, have arts programs in their schools, and report taking private music lessons outside of school. For our students, this means that before they ever get to the college application process they have invested dozens of hours searching, applying, and often fundraising just to experience high-quality enrichment opportunities.
While wealthy families can afford college consultants, expensive tutors, and schools serving as pipelines to top colleges, low-income students have unreliable college advising and application support. Many schools have ratios higher than the national average of 482 students per counselor. Even when they do receive support, counselors can sometimes become an impediment given lack of expertise or belief that top colleges are only possible for certain students.
All these hindrances are on top of a variety of challenges we see related to living in areas with high poverty, food or housing insecurity, risks of deportation, trauma and mental health, and much more. So let’s be appalled by the level of corruption that has crept into college admissions. But let’s be outraged that our society has accepted that low-income students should have to hurdle endless obstacles to pursue their college dreams.
After that, let’s seek ways to clear the path for these students. We can auto-enroll eligible students in advanced high school courses. We can implement initiatives that increase awareness about school quality and pass policies that make it easier to access schools of choice. We can push more colleges to go test-optional, ensure students have access to more school counselors, and partner with organizations like TeenSHARP that are helping students navigate this intense world of college admissions.
Tatiana Poladko is the founder of TeenSHARP, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware that prepares talented low-income, Black, and Latino students for top colleges.