March 15, 2019

GROSKAUFMANIS | The Cost of the Admissions Process

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Federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged fifty people in a plot to illegally buy admission to elite colleges like Stanford, Yale and University of Southern California for their children.  The U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, Andrew E. Lelling, deemed the case the “largest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted.” Among those investigated by the FBI was a Cornell alumnus charged with fraud for paying $75,000 to rig his daughter’s ACT score.

“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” Lelling said, perhaps accidentally highlighting the fact that, legal or illegal, there effectively always has been.

This investigation has put what most students already know onto the public’s collective radar: The college admissions process rests on a playing field that is almost vertically tilted in favor of rich applicants. To everyone who has been paying attention, this revelation is almost entirely unsurprising. Rather, I’ve found that most other students I’ve talked about this with are more surprised by the fact that there have been any consequences at all.

One thing that is notable about the investigation and its findings is how substantively marginal the differences can be between illegal and legal tactics used to game the system — an irony that has been parodied on Twitter.  A $400,000 bribe can lead to an indictment, but a “donation” to a university of the same dollar amount could potentially lead, albeit less directly, to generations of acceptance letters.

Much of the influence used to gain admission to colleges, whether exercised through elite networks or finances, goes unprosecuted, unmentioned and is even encouraged with each application cycle. And that’s because much of it is perfectly legal.

Woven into the college application process are advantages that range in subtlety and have nothing to do with merit. Some are obvious: for instance, the “advantage” of attending a school where a library bears your last name.  But others, such as an immunity to the financial pressures of application fees faced by other students or the benefit offered by elite feeder schools, are more insidious and harmful to equal opportunity.

The legacy admissions benefit is among the most easily identifiable (and controversial) policies that reproduce privilege at selective schools across the country. At Harvard, for instance, legacy applicants are five times more likely to be admitted than their non-legacy counterparts.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg, as many of us who have recently applied to college — and noticed our own personal boosts or barriers — undoubtedly know.

Take, for instance, something as simple as early decision.

In the class of 2022, the early decision acceptance rate was 24.3 percent, compared to 10.3 percent for regular decision, representing a considerable admissions advantage for those who are able to commit to Cornell early. But ED offers, which are binding, arrive prior to financial aid packages, which presents an often exclusionary dilemma for low-income students who reasonably can’t commit to a school without information about what support they’ll be getting —  especially when Cornell’s annual tuition is approximately $56,000. Technically students can renege for financial reasons, but many students I’ve spoken with say they were unaware of this option.

In high school, I remember friends considering and ultimately foregoing the ED option for financial reasons. Common App data shows that students from families earning more than $250,000 annually are significantly more likely to apply to schools using the ED advantage than their counterparts whose families earn $50,000 or less. Legacy students are encouraged to apply in this window if they want special consideration. The number of ED applications to Cornell has increased by almost 85 percent in the last ten years, with a near-quarter of each class coming in from the ED pool.

Then there are more obvious barriers to entry, like application fees. Charging $80 per un-waived application, Cornell ranks among the most expensive schools one can apply to. And although the CommonApp has streamlined the waiver process and Cornell waived $1.1 million in application fees in 2018 (compared to the 3.5 million it did not), some have suggested, such as Prof. Evan Reihl, economics, that even the process of having to apply for a waiver can be a deterrent in itself.

My close friend Michelle Dan ’19 said that, for her, financial considerations and her first-generation status impacted the college application process before it even began. “I felt limited even in things like taking the SAT, because the cost of having to take it more than once would have really hurt me,” Dan said. “Prep classes were also very much out of the question.”

In contrast, I took one of these classes my junior year, not thinking much of it at the time.  The other day, sitting around a table with friends, I surveyed the group and found that four out of six of us had gone through some sort of SAT or ACT prep before applying to Cornell. But from other conversations I’ve had about them at Cornell — which are scarce, in part because I don’t think people love talking about the help they’ve been given — I get the sense that it’s relatively common here to have taken these types of courses.

The $840 million commercial test prep industry illustrates yet another advantage, but one that can exist before students even decide where they want to apply to college. Test scores, which are reliably correlated with family income, can carry significant weight in admissions decisions.

There seems to be a bit of defeatism in our collective conversations about the issues in admissions processes, a crumpling into the idea that the status quo will persist.  The attitude I’ve gauged in response to the current investigations is that the system is so obviously broken that any attempt to discuss or fix it is naive, wishful thinking. To some extent, I disagree.

Plenty of schools have pioneered small measures to make things more accessible. Schools like Wellesley and Tulane have dropped their application fees altogether, and student activists have rallied against the practice of legacy preference in the admissions process. There’s no single fix for the issues that pervade our current system, but there is value in identifying them and in trying to make the process more equitable.  And at a school where we tout the motto “Any Person, Any Study,” we in particular have an obligation to try and do this.

It’s hard to look at a system, particularly one that has plucked you from a pool of other applicants in a process that feels highly personal, as something that is flawed — to take an acceptance that was originally an honor and re-examine it as an unflattering example of potential unfairness.

But because we as current students have the most recent, most direct experience navigating the admissions process, our personal analyses of all of the special benefits or barriers that we encountered could serve as valuable contributions to a conversation that seems to be finally taking off in what could be a productive direction.

In an interview on The Daily this week, a reporter mused candidly on this type of self-reflection, or lack thereof. “If you do not know all of the winds at your back pushing you forward, helping you along, you will believe that you deserve everything that you got,” she said.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com. The Dissent runs every other Monday this semester.