Column: School funding assures an unequal playing field in college admissions

Newport Beach resident William "Rick" Singer, right, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, exits federal court in Boston on March 12 after pleading guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.
(Steven Senne / AP)

I write frequently about the flawed college admissions game. So it’s gratifying that in the past several months much attention has been focused on this important issue.

It’s too bad that this increased awareness has been fueled in part by the cheating scandal run by disgraced Newport Beach college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, who has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing for orchestrating a brazen, fraudulent enterprise to get the children of wealthy clients accepted into top colleges.

Some parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, have already been sentenced to jail time for their roles in the scheme. More convictions are likely coming.


The case has shone a light on a twisted, often inscrutable process that is already badly skewed in favor of the affluent, even when no laws are broken.

Other efforts to call attention to the inequality baked into the college admissions process have added to our understanding. For instance, I recently read acclaimed author Paul Tough’s latest book, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Or Breaks Us,” which provides an excellent examination.

The book details the many advantages held by students from affluent households, including family and social connections, expensive tutoring for the SAT and ACT, access to elite “feeder” schools and support from skilled counselors and consultants.

In addition, institutions of higher learning, which are dealing with difficult budgetary issues, are under intense pressure to admit students who are financially able to pay all or most of the full cost of their education and whose families might become donors.

Tough’s book also shows how the highly touted efforts of universities to increase diversity and reach out to students from low-income backgrounds have, in many cases, not made any discernible progress toward those goals.

Sometimes they’ve even made matters worse.

Other books and editorials in recent months have also focused attention on the need to make access to college more equitable, and to find better ways to help students pay for their degrees without going deeply into debt.

All this attention is welcome, and the issues raised are important. But I worry that in focusing so intently on college admissions, we might lose sight of the fact that our entire system of education is plagued by inequality, from top to bottom. From the day a child is born, her prospects for achieving the kind of education that will determine what sort of future she will have are largely set in place.

Kids from certain ZIP codes simply don’t have access, or have sharply limited access, to the most critical pieces of a sound educational foundation and the basic prerequisites of a satisfying career: quality health care and nutrition; pre-kindergarten enriching programs and activities; a strong network of personal and institutional support; and countless other resources that families in more affluent communities take for granted.

Those disadvantaged kids go to schools that are chronically underfunded. Even children who manage to succeed academically in disadvantaged circumstances receive little information about how to apply to college, much less how to navigate the complexities of financial aid and resume-building. And tax-deferred college savings plans are helpful for those who can afford to put money away in the first place.

The research is clear: Kids who start out behind, with rare exception, stay behind.

This too is a scandal. We will never achieve anything close to parity in college admissions unless we get to a place where all children have equal access to a quality education and a highly functioning support system.

Right about now you might be thinking that what I am suggesting is an impossible Utopian ideal, a pipe dream that has no reasonable chance of happening.

Perhaps that’s true, but what’s the alternative? Do we go on as we have for too long, with a system that fails far too many kids? Do we continue to be satisfied with deep inequality as long as universities occasionally reach down and lift a lucky few they deign to be deserving into the ranks of the so-called elite?

Or do we summon the will to at least try to make a real change?

It wouldn’t be easy. Fixing this problem would mean being willing to reconsider some of the most sacred cows of our education system, from the way we fund public schools mostly through local property taxes — which pretty much guarantees inequality — to our unhealthy reliance on standardized tests, to teacher compensation.

There would be a lot of heavy lifting involved, and of course, an insane amount of pushback to any attempt at structural reform. Likely what will happen is more of what we’ve always done — small fixes, incremental change and a lot of lip service.

Minor improvements will be celebrated as big accomplishments. Excuses will be made. Fingers will point.

All the while, inequality will worsen, as it has done for many years.

We know that a college degree is the surest means of achieving economic security — and will be even more so as our society becomes increasingly automated — and the benefits accrue not just to individuals but to society in general.

But the next time you consider the unfair college admissions process, remember that it’s not an isolated issue. It’s a sad reflection of an ingrained system that fails those who need help the most

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