College Admissions is No Scam­ — Just Reflection of Socioeconomic Disparity

Recently, the Boston Globe ran a piece entitled “The College Admissions Scam.” The author, Neal Gabler, seemed to reiterate what has been in the magazines since I started high school. College admissions is a game and the more money you have to ‘play,’ the easier it is to navigate the system. Thank you for your originality. You’ve done your research well. What really peeved me about his piece was his adamant statement that “the admissions system of the so-called ‘best’ schools is rigged against you…indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.”

As someone who has gone through the grueling college admissions process, I can relate to Gabler’s frustration with the system. There is no denying that the upper echelon of society always has an upper hand in the system. They have the money to send their kids to SAT prep classes. They have the money to send their kids to private cello lessons, elite prep schools, and other boundless chances to grow and develop. Is it fair that one student may be presented a platter of choices and a choir of attentive parents and teachers while another student struggles to balance a part-time job, a single-parent family, and is still getting all As?

Of course it’s not fair. But the disparity amongst students’ backgrounds is not something that the college admissions officer can help ­— it is intrinsic in society. And according to Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions at MIT, many college admissions officers understand the disparity in students’ profiles due to their varying socioeconomic backgrounds. They make an effort to judge each student in the context of his school, his activities and whether or not he made the most of the opportunities he had been given. They would not juxtapose a student from an inner-city school with a family income of less than $60,000 with a student from Greenwich, Connecticut whose father owns a shipping industry.

What about the legacy admits? Neal Gabler rightfully points out that some students gain acceptance to elite colleges because of their family background. However, the college admissions process is not so cut-and-dry. I regret to admit this, but colleges need these legacies and generous donors in order to compensate for the less fortunate students who are accepted based on their own merit. Why can’t the admissions process be a complete meritocracy? Because for many schools, they need funding for the opportunities they want to provide to the less well-off students.

MIT, is fortunate enough not to have to rely on the full tuitions of legacies. Schmill explained that MIT has been lucky to have an impressive endowment fund and generous donations from alumni. Because of this, MIT is able to provide students with a family income of under $75,000 free tuition. Many other colleges hope to achieve MIT’s diversity in terms of students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and have made a conscious decision to move towards this diversity.

Gabler writes: “So here’s the bottom line for all those exceptional middle-class and lower-class high school seniors who will doubt their own worth when the near inevitable rejection letters arrive…the fault lies in the system, and the system isn’t going to change, because it benefits the people it is designed to benefit — people who understand how much a real meritocracy would threaten their power.” Your conspiracy theory is unfounded. There is no complete meritocracy in any place. However, the college admissions system is attempting to do the best while understanding the vast inconsistency in socioeconomic levels of applicants.

Furthermore, if these lower-class school seniors were truly exceptional, they will be great anywhere. While most top schools’ admissions officers would take these exceptional lower-class students in a heartbeat if they show extraordinary potential, even if they don’t, these lower-class students can still ultimately achieve success. To already have doubts about an individuals’ success simply because he or she didn’t enter the top ten undergraduate programs is itself a debasement of any meritocratic tenets.

For the students fortunate enough to receive the top-notch education that they do, they must seize the opportunity and fully rise to the challenge. For those who have not been lucky enough to gain this early opportunity, they must realize that where one goes to college is only a small stepping stone. There is no scam. Those who are given more opportunities from birth may have the initial advantage but ultimately it comes down to the individual and his own capabilities.

­Maggie Liu is a member of the Class of 2012 and Arts Editor at The Tech.