Specific policies that colleges use in their admissions processes, like legacy and athlete admissions, have been proven to disproportionately aid the rich and white in their college search. The inequality these policies perpetuate, however, is baked into the fundamentals of college applications: standardized tests and holistic admissions. Standardized tests have proven time and time again to be a “wealth test,” as opposed to one of intelligence. Operation Varsity Blues introduced to the general public the idea of rich parents exploiting extra-time accommodations and paying individuals to correct their children’s scores during the test (but really, how surprised were we, when this very situation was the plot of one of the first episodes of “Gossip Girl”?). But aside from actual illegal cheating, the ACT reported in 2016 that students whose parents earn $80,000 or higher score a 23.6 on average, while those with less wealthy parents typically scored a 19.5. Stanford’s average ACT scores range from 32 to 35, which, based on test scores alone, would seem to push the economic demographic of the University even further away from the nation’s average. And the overlap between wealth and test scores is impacted by race: as of 2016, white families had a median family wealth of $171,000, while those numbers for Black and Hispanic families fall at $17,600 and $20,700, respectively. The median, of course, does not represent these racial demographics in their entirety, but the intersection of race and wealth certainly seems to impact test results. And the very process created to combat this phenomenon — holistic admissions — upholds it just as much.
Colleges have become exponentially more selective over time. Since the 1970s, the number of college applicants has doubled. Universities, however, have largely remained the same size. To ensure their children stood out against these new and large waves of applicants, families turned to extracurricular activities to round out their children’s applications. The 1990s saw a significant rise in the amount of time parents, especially college-educated parents, spent on childcare (that is, time parents spend with their progeny under 18) at the same time that the United States saw a dramatic increase in the size of college-aged cohorts. Garey and Valerie Ramey at the Brookings Institute studied this phenomenon and connected the two figures, finding that these parents’ care specifically targeted older children, and consisted mainly of travel and activities — categories that look favorable on a college application. The study also found that an increase of a cultural emphasis placed on “prestige” motivated parents to spend more time on childcare. Indeed, selective (read: prestigious) universities put the most emphasis on extracurricular involvement on the admissions process. Ultimately, college-educated parents — who by and large already have a monetary and social advantage in preparing their children for college — exploit this advantage and dedicate more time to the childcare they believe will get their children into selective universities.
This increased competition, which has led to more time spent on college-prep activities, has resulted in a rise of qualified applicants. As students attempted to outperform each other to impress colleges’ emerging interest in extracurricular activities instead of solely academics, all the once-exceptional applicants began to look alike. Colleges implemented “holistic admissions,” a system that promised to evaluate applicants on their character, not just their academic merit, to individualize the process once more. This system, however, leaves room for even more bias in the admissions process. According to the College Board’s guide to holistic admissions, colleges consider mission-statement alignment, an applicant’s ability to thrive at and enrich a school, as well as the academic, nonacademic and contextual factors of an applicant. The College Board pushes this policy, and colleges have adopted it, because it allows applicants to explain any extenuating circumstances that could make an otherwise qualified applicant perform worse than her or his peers.
A 2013 video observing Amherst College’s admissions committee, however, shows how personal bias can inform these decisions. Tom Parker, a dean of admissions, concedes that “there are times, honestly, where I’m not sure why I put my hand up or failed to put my hand up” to decide whether or not to admit a student. This frightening ambiguity pushes students to adopt the latest hobbies they think admissions officers want to see, which undermines the “authenticity” that holistic admissions strives to capture. In his article “The Abiding Scandal of College Admissions,” Matt Feeney sums up this paradox: “It’s like watching Meryl Streep portray Margaret Thatcher and thinking, Now that is the real Meryl Streep.” Holistic admissions takes on a perverse life of its own when considered from a student’s perspective. Starting as young as middle school, students begin to craft a caricature of themselves they believe will appeal to colleges, which then breeds the question: Where does the college applicant end and the kid begin? Colleges have convinced students that their admissions decision is a moral judgement on their very person.
And this engine that was created to equalize the playing field ultimately still favors the rich and white: students with money have more opportunities to create an “authentic” profile. In addition, 85% of a 2016 survey of 559 chief admissions officers identified as white, and to them, as Matt Feeney put it, “what ends up resembling ‘authenticity’ … is an uncannily WASPy mix of dispensations.” Standardized college admissions testing was created as a supposedly objective metric to measure potential students’ academic merit. When this system failed to uphold the meritocratic values it preached, colleges turned to holistic admissions to fill in the gaps. But without governmental policy at the local, state and national levels that addresses American wealth disparity, and especially the intersection between income and race, these metrics of admissions will fail to uphold any semblance of meritocracy in American universities.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated “white families had a median income of $171,000, while those numbers for Black and Hispanic families fall at $17,600 and $20,700, respectively.” The statement has been corrected to indicate that these figures refer to median family wealth, not income. The Daily regrets this error.