Take a short walk across the University of Michigan’s campus and you will see no shortage of Canada Goose jackets, Hermès bracelets or Gucci sneakers. These aren’t objects that the average college student — let alone the average adult in the United States — can easily afford, but based on our campus, you’d think they were. Wearing designer clothes isn’t an issue in and of itself, but it does become an issue when it is the result of unchecked privilege. Mar. 12, 2021, will mark two years since the news broke of “Operation Varsity Blues” — the infamous college admissions scandal which brought to light the lengths America’s elite will go to ensure their kids get into the country’s most prestigious universities. It galvanized the public and sent shock waves through college campuses across the country. To this day, scrolling through social media comments of those involved will show you people are still upset. While the anger and frustration toward the guilty are valid and understandable, years later we have still failed to recognize that the problem is so much more than cheating your way into college.
While attending the University of Michigan, where 66% of students come from households in the top 20% of the income distribution, I have witnessed first-hand how deep elitism runs on college campuses. It’s easy to point our fingers at those who cheated their way into elite universities and call out their moral failure. It is a lot more difficult to call out the systems of privilege that get under-qualified students into colleges, even when they don’t pose as a star athlete or pay someone to take the ACT for them. Students who grow up in higher-income households live in their own world of privilege that gives them all the resources they need to not only get into top colleges but then rack up achievements not accessible to those in lower family income brackets.
What the media failed to recognize in the whole college admissions scandal was that the college admissions process is based on much more than just grades. Even if grades and test scores were the only criteria, students coming from high-earning households have access to resources such as tutors and fancy pre-college programs that aren’t available to low-income students. Those resources can help increase test scores and fluff-up applications. Extracurriculars, school prestige and legacy status all factor into admissions as well.
As for extracurriculars, attending private or better-funded public schools gives students more opportunities to participate in prestigious clubs — such as the debate team or Model UN — or in sports — like crew and fencing — that aren’t offered at less well-off schools. Even outside of school, families that can afford to pay for private piano lessons or sailing lessons help ensure their kids stand out to college recruiters.
A student’s ties to a university are a big contributor to getting rich kids into schools that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. In recent years, legacy students — those who have a family member that attended the university they are applying to — have been disturbingly more likely than the average applicant to get into top schools. At universities like Harvard and Princeton, legacy students are four to five times more likely to get admitted than those who don’t have family ties to the school. Of course, a “philanthropic” donation to a university before your child applies could easily do the trick as well.
Students who don’t have to worry about the cost of tuition also have a powerful thing that lower-income students don’t have: options. To be able to choose where you’ll spend four years of your life and to handpick a school that is the perfect match is a privilege that is often overlooked. For many low-income students, just being able to attend college, whether it be a community college or a state school, is a blessing. We often forget how inaccessible college education has become for so many students. Nearly 70% of 2019 graduates had to take out student loans. This barrier to entry, exemplified by the staggering difference in matriculation rates among students from high-income families and low-income families, is something you don’t hear well-off students complaining about.
The college admissions scandal shouldn’t only have taught us about how unjust the college admissions process is. The way students spend time outside of class in college are vastly different and are often perpetrated by family income. While some students are getting initiated into elite secret societies on campus or spending spring break partying on the yacht of a chairman for their school’s board of trustees, lower-income students are often working low-paying jobs just to make rent for the month. If you’re fortunate enough to have your family cover your tuition and living expenses, the opportunities available to you drastically increase, whether they be fun extracurriculars or unpaid internships.
Prestigious universities that gate-keep lower-income students create an environment that allows many rich students to be blind to their privilege. The University of Michigan is all too familiar with this issue. It has been widely criticized for its lack of socioeconomic diversity. It’s apparent from campus that the University is not your average state school. I will never forget a conversation between two students I overheard during my first week on campus. One student complained about not knowing how to do her own laundry because her maid had always done it for her. Her conclusion was to hire a maid service at school because she simply couldn’t be bothered to do her own chores. The other student complained about her father not booking her a first-class seat for her flight home for Thanksgiving. I was shocked. Though those may be normal conversations on campus, they are problems most people could only wish to have. The worst part was how oblivious the students were of their privilege.
The elitism of students at the University of Michigan and at so many other top universities is perhaps more apparent than ever. The college admissions scandal brought the conversation of elitism among students from high-earning families to the national stage. However, the conversation didn’t go far enough. There is much more progress that can be made in identifying the systems that allow students from high-income families to get ahead. It starts with admissions counselors and university administrators making a concerted effort to place equal value on prospective students despite their socioeconomic status.
Theodora Vorias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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