College makes up the most formative years of many lives, providing unique opportunities to grow, learn, and prepare for adulthood. Admission into a selective college is a crowning achievement, and getting a degree at one is even more so. In terms of job opportunities, a college diploma can make all the difference in whether one is hired. But the process of college application and admission is deeply flawed, shaped into an often discriminatory system. Racial and socioeconomic disparities have plagued higher education since its inception, showing few signs of being fixed. “Inequity is inherent in all institutions of our country… it’s inherent in college as well,” said David An, a college counselor at the College and Career Center at Berkeley High School (BHS).
The setup of college admissions to focus on experience and accomplishments, while sensible at the outset, creates an immediate disparity. Setting the same bar for everyone to clear raises troubles; those with wealth and privilege will vault the bar more easily, whereas those with less privilege will have a far more difficult time exceeding the requirements.
This one-size-fits-all mentality honors only one mentality and perspective. As an attempt to counteract these consequences, some colleges utilize a reflective system of considering achievement and success. An explained, “UC Berkeley employs a ‘holistic approach’ that emphasizes ‘excellence in your context.’ That kind of language and style of admissions is the right direction.” As a way to further combat these consequences, some colleges have made use of affirmative action policies in the past, wherein admissions officers can favor a previously disadvantaged group. This allows colleges to consider additionally the hardships a particular applicant might have grappled with, and correct for that in regards to those more favored in opportunities.
Khatya Cherney, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), observed a similar phenomenon. “It is good to see room in each application to describe personal disadvantages and struggles a person could have that make other aspects of their application less strong,” Cherney noted.
Although moving towards the right areas, one danger of this approach is playing up difficult situations or hardships, which some feel is a form of ‘selling’ their troubles to get in. “This requires students of color to be very blunt about their backgrounds and hardships as a BIPOC — which is something that is extremely challenging to face and write about, speaking for myself,” noted Mexica Greco, a senior in BIHS. Greco is a person of color and, this year, she is the first member of her family to apply to college.
Greco feels that although colleges have taken steps to support students who do not have access to costly preparation programs, the attendees of tuition-free prep courses were far from diverse. She recalled, “I took a free SAT prep class last year … Most of the people in this class were BIPOC. I noticed that most free support programs for seniors applying to college are predominantly full of BIPOC. I think this definitely feeds into common stereotypes.”
However, she found the amount of support beneficial and emboldening. “BHS has been very helpful in supporting me as a first-generation student, so I am very grateful for that,” Greco said. She also mentioned receiving “lots of help from different people at school as well as outside sources.”
Although Cherney recognized BHS’s support, she was still critical of how much that might help — particularly when compared to hiring private counselors or paying for preparation programs. She found that an integral part of strengthening her application was proofreading through a second set of eyes, or, more generally, “personal guidance with filling out applications.” She noted this would be “especially difficult [to acquire] for first generation college students.”
Though some colleges are attempting to combat inequity through policies like the holistic approach or advocating for affirmative action, these efforts appear to be at odds with unfair and often elitist practices that still remain widespread in admissions. Varsha Venkatram, a senior at Stanford Online High School (SOHS), noted, “Colleges are for-profit institutions, and they appear to strongly consider wealth and legacy in their acceptance systems.”
The legacy system to which Venkatram referred is deeply controversial. People with “legacy” are those whose forebears attended the same school, generally making sizable donations for generations. In many private colleges, legacy students are favored over other applicants who are similarly qualified, but do not have legacy.
This practice is evidently unfair for first-generation students, who differ not in skill or ability from those with legacy status, but often by socioeconomic status. As such, those with legacy are commonly assumed to be wealthier than their peers, which colleges rely on, thinking first of alumni donations rather than intellectual accomplishments.
For the same reason, prospective athletes are highly sought after as a source of revenue. Some argue that this creates a potential loophole for privileged students to gain admission, at the expense of less wealthy peers. Recent college admissions scandals, wherein highly wealthy parents paid as much as $1.2 million to manufacture impressive — yet fake — athletic records of their children’s involvement on crew or soccer teams, called attention to this issue. Recruited athletes performing at a high level are more likely to get into schools that remain a roll of the dice for other students.
As long as colleges remain businesses, this fact is unlikely to change. However, Venkatram, whose immediate family attended college before her, intentionally turned down applying to the school at which she had legacy. In many ways, placing her personal preference over concerns about acceptance was a major decision, as a 2011 Harvard study showed that legacy applicants had a 45 percent greater chance of getting in to the top 30 US colleges. While legacy is considered at many private colleges, UC schools have taken a firm stance against giving an advantage to legacy students.
Although affirmative action could provide support for students of color and potentially help counteract systemic discrimination in admissions, California’s UC systems have been constrained by the outlawing of affirmative action since 1996, after the passing of Proposition 209. Prop. 209 requires the UC system to ignore race in hiring and admissions. By making it such that blatant discrimination cannot have countermeasure leveled at it, Prop. 209 leads to a college environment that is not representative of the world around it.
Within a few years of the introduction of Prop. 209, percentages of African-American students at UC’s dropped suddenly from around 9 percent — the same as their actual percentage in the larger area — to 2 percent. However, it is worth noting that the percentage of African-American students has risen back up to around 6 percent today.
Recently, Prop. 16, a contradictory measure to Prop. 209, was placed on the ballot for the 2020 election. Had it passed, it would have repealed the ban on affirmative action, but hopes for a resurgence of liberal votes were dashed on November 3.
UC schools remain unable to practice affirmative action. Racial and economic inequity in the admissions system hurts first generation applicants every step of the way — from essay writing to SAT prep. Policies like legacy only make these disparities worse. Venkatram remarked, “At its worst, the system seems to perpetuate already existing societal boundaries for lower-income families, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups, but I think that’s a greater issue about society, rather than just college applications.”
College is an expensive, time consuming endeavor and many have been turned away simply because they didn’t have the funds to get through the door. As An put it, “Not increasing our efforts indicates that we’re okay with letting the way things are continue to be.”
Return next issue to read more about inequity in standardized testing and the elusivity of solutions in part two of this series.