Wealth Inequality in College Admissions: One of the Many Flaws of Higher Education
In its purest form, higher education is meant to expand upon and improve a vast array of student outcomes, from personal economic stability to health care access, critical thinking skills to self-esteem. It opens the door to a world of possibility, where collaboration and curiosity thrive. Despite these positive aspects, colleges and universities are more prone to flaws than not. They are business ventures which sell you on the promise of success, but only if you can pay to fit their mold of the ideal applicant.
From 1980 to 2005, four-year college tuition and fee expenditures rose from 40 percent of family income to 72 percent of family income for families in the lowest income quartile (McMahon, 57). A central flaw of higher education is the wealth and socioeconomic inequality of college and university admissions, which impedes access to these institutions.
The costs of attending college are high, and they do not begin with the acceptance deposit. To be considered a strong applicant at most state colleges and universities, a student needs a wide range of extracurriculars and honors on their resume, many of which take significant time and money.
Students from high-income families have a strong advantage when it comes to improving their chance of admissions. These families are able to afford private college tutors and counselors to oversee applications and edit personal statements and essays. School tours and visits, which may require hotel stays and airfare, are “of considerable importance” for 16 percent of public colleges. Connections and legacy status are considered in six percent of public college and university applications, including at the University of Virginia. For a base fee of $95, students can further impress admissions offices with Advanced Placement exam scores. While these advantages often lead to favorable outcomes for those who can afford them, they are not required by college admissions boards. Standardized tests, however, are.
Standardized testing is a system of entrance exams used by colleges and universities to assess college readiness in the admissions process. The most common standardized tests at the pre-college level are the SAT and ACT, which are run by separate nonprofit organizations. The 2020-2021 SAT test costs $52. With an essay portion included, the test costs $68.
In addition to the financial barrier these tests present to lower-income families, students from high-income families have access to numerous tools which aid in taking and getting higher scores on standardized tests. Test prep courses and practice exam books are expensive, but packed with effective tips, tricks, and explanations. In 2015, students with a family income over $200,000 scored the highest on average, while students with a family income less than $20,000 scored the lowest. These students can also afford to take the SAT or ACT multiple times until they achieve a score they are satisfied with sending to colleges, whereas students from low-income families may not have this same opportunity. In extreme cases, some high-income families spend millions fabricating test scores and enrolling their children in fictitious online private high schools to increase the likelihood of acceptance at top colleges and universities.
Entrance exams stand as a gatekeeper of higher education for students from low-income families, who are disproportionately students of color. This innate inequity causes colleges and universities to compare students from differing backgrounds to the national average, not taking into account familial wealth and the advantages that come with it.
Public institutions in the United States perpetuate wealth inequality by placing too much emphasis on standardized testing scores as admissions predictors. Many Virginia colleges and universities are no exception. Universities such as Christopher Newport and Mary Washington saw under 20 percent of students enrolled from the bottom 60 percent of the family income distribution in 2017, while rates at James Madison, Virginia, and Virginia Tech fall below 15 percent. However, at Virginia State University, 63 percent of students were from low-income families in 2017. Norfolk State University and UVA-Wise have comparable statistics.
Enrollment of students from low-income families varies greatly across the state; many of the public four-year institutions that enroll students from low-income families at increasing rates also enroll students of color at increasing rates. George Mason University and Old Dominion University have over one-third minority populations, and over half of the students at these institutions are from low-income families.
Public colleges and universities in Virginia concerned with climbing national rankings are disproportionately enrolling students from low-income families and students of color. Standardized testing plays a large role. Racial and income gaps in test scores maintain and mimic overarching societal inequities and discrimination.
In the past year, due to the complications of testing in a pandemic, several public institutions in Virginia removed standardized testing requirements for the Class of 2025. These schools, and others in the state, should consider permanently removing this requirement. Public colleges and universities like the University of California and the University of Oregon have already extended this new guideline for years to come in an effort to place less emphasis on standardized testing and test alternate methods. One year after adopting a test-optional policy, the University of Chicago saw a 20 percent increase in the enrollment of first-generation students and students from low-income families.
There are a variety of factors that have a substantial impact on access to higher education and that expand beyond or intersect with wealth and income, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. We must work to eliminate the institutional barriers associated with these identities in the admissions process. The first step in making higher education more equitable is removing standardized testing requirements altogether.
McMahon, Walter. Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education. Illustrated, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.
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