Students recall constrasting admissions routes
The Santa Clara
April 25, 2019
The families involved in the college bribery scandal embody wealth and privilege in America: CEOs, Hollywood stars, Wall Street millionaires, vineyard owners, prominent lawyers.
Some of these families reside here in the Bay Area, with implicated students having attended the same high schools as current Santa Clara students.
If they’re villains, they’re villains made to order during a time preoccupied with deep divisions of class, privilege and race—a time when many regular Americans often feel like they have no chance of getting ahead in a system engineered to favor the richest of the rich.
For Americans who are already disenchanted by the college admissions process, the corruption in the college admission system exposed by the scandal further shatters any notion that hard work, good grades and perseverance are the way into a prestigious school.
“Even though I always knew I wanted to go to college, the process of applying discouraged me a lot,” said Santa Clara sophomore Mackenzie Wessell. “It was already such a stressful process and to now find out that there were people paying their way into schools that others work so hard to get into hit me hard.”
Wessell took SAT prep classes and said her scores improved because of them—but the test-taking process and worrying about scores was stressful even with the extra help.
The orchestrator of the whole college admissions scheme, William “Rick” Singer, tried to justify his wrongdoings in court last month by leaning on this very reality of getting into top colleges in America.
Singer put it matter-of-factly. He said that there’s the front door, which involves getting in legitimately through academic achievements. There’s the back door, which involves donating huge sums of money to a university in order to influence admissions decisions. His scheme was a cheaper alternative to the back door option: the side door.
Most people weren’t surprised to hear about the back door option. It can be unsettling to learn about the massive sums of money people donate to get their children into college.
What really shocked people though was the description of a side door—a corrupt advantage on top of the advantages already accorded to the rich. This newly revealed reality has set off outrage, especially for hard-working kids trying to get in on merit.
The scandal resonated with people because it’s hard to avoid conversations these days about the wealth gap, the one percent and a “rigged system,” a term used by politicians Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.The massive disparity between the wealthy and the working-class stretches far beyond a law-breaking scandal.
Wealthy parents can pay for a stellar K-12 education, athletic coaches and test prep, as well as donations to the Ivy League schools—all legal ways to influence admissions decisions. They have personal or legacy connections at elite schools that they can use to gain admission. They understand how to navigate the complicated admission system.
Santa Clara junior Gaby Ahlstrom was able to benefit from the wide array of help offered to prospective college students. She went to a Catholic high school in Chicago, she took private ACT prep classes and said her test scores improved after going to a tutor.
But, Ahlstrom recalled her high school offering ACT prep classes for free in its library for students who couldn’t afford to pay for outside help on their own. Because of this, she doesn’t think that paying for a private tutor necessarily put her at a greater advantage over other students. In addition to the help offered by her school, Ahlstrom referenced the ACT tutoring books available for purchase online.
“They sold the ACT tutoring books so literally anyone could practice for the test. I just had someone checking my answers in the back of the book,” Ahlstrom said. “It was definitely a privilege that I had and something I’m grateful for, but I think there’s affordable opportunities out there for other people.”
According to Richard V. Reeves, author of “Dream Hoarders,” a book that argues the American upper middle class hoards opportunities, most colleges targeted in the admissions scandal took more kids in the top 1 percent than they did from all of the bottom 60 percent.
“The entire process caters to specific groups, like the upper class,” Wessell said. “The sanctity of education is lost knowing that some people don’t have to stress as much through this process that’s basically made to break us. Or maybe they do stress at first, but at least at the end of the day they can write a check and their problems will go away.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting. Contact Kimi Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.