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From Privilege to Progress: How We Can Turn a Twisted Scandal into an Opportunity for Reform

It could have been a movie. It probably will be a movie soon. Bribes and faked photos. FBI wiretaps. Celebrities and other rich families. “Operation Varsity Blues” has everything you’d want from a high drama caper. It even has William H. Macy starring as his signature character: the nice guy who gets in over his head with a bumbling criminal plot.

It’s no wonder that this college admissions scandal is dominating headlines. But if this news cycle ends with a bunch of Twitter jokes about Aunt Becky and without taking a hard look at equity in higher education, it will be a lot of wasted time.

Yes, this story is about a very small number of wealthy families applying to a very small number of “elite” schools, but it absolutely tells a bigger story about our higher education system. These schemes were illegal, but there are tons of legal ways that wealthier families can game the college admissions system that lower-income families cannot – from small ways like paying for private SAT tutoring to big ways like donating a library to the school.

All these big and small advantages add up to a system where it’s much easier for a wealthier student to apply to college, attend college, and graduate with a degree.

A low achieving student from a high-income family is more likely to graduate than a high achieving student from a low-income family. Today, fewer than 15% of low-income students get a four-year degree, while more than 6 in 10 wealthy students do. When it comes to the “elite” schools like the ones in this scandal, it’s even worse – children from the top 1% are 77 times more likely to attend one of those highly selective schools compared to children from low-income families.

This hurts our communities and our country in all kinds of ways, but perhaps the most shameful way is what it means for racial equity. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but Black and Latinx adults are far less likely to get a postsecondary degree than their white peers. This trend is worsening – these gaps have remained stagnant or grown larger over the last twenty years.

I wouldn’t blame students with low-incomes if they feel the system is broken and rigged against them. After yesterday’s news, they may feel that this proves higher education isn’t meant for them.  

The ultimate tragedy of this scandal would be if it becomes one more thing that deters young people from pursuing their higher education dreams. Because, despite all the flaws in our system, a college degree is still worth it.

Students who graduate with a Bachelor’s degree earn more than $1 million more over the course of their lifetime. A college degree benefits students in more than just their paycheck, and it benefits society as a whole. College graduates face lower unemployment, pay more in taxes, are healthier, and are more civically engaged.

So let’s use this moment to talk about what’s broken in our higher education system (a lot) and how we can fix it (hello state and federal elected officials!). And let’s center the voices and lived experiences of students in that conversation, especially first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color.

At Young Invincibles, we talk to students every day so we can better understand their challenges. One thing I can tell you is that their biggest concern is not that they didn’t play enough water polo to get into a top tier school. Students worry about how they will pay for college as tuition skyrockets and financial aid stagnates. They worry about how they will be able to attend class without being able to find affordable childcare for their kid. They worry about how they will navigate the application and financial aid process when no one in their family has applied to college before. And for far too many, they might be worried about where they will find their next meal and whether they will have to sleep in their car again tonight.

There are lots of ways we can work right now to reform the system and make it more equitable. Clearly, huge changes need to be made in the admissions process itself.

But it’s so much more than that. We must make policy changes on the state and federal level that open up opportunity for the students who need and deserve it. We need to reverse a decade of state disinvestment in higher education that has led to a 30% increase in tuition over the last 10 years. We need to simplify the FAFSA and increase funding to Pell Grants. We need to increase supports like Federal Work Study and CCAMPIS that help students complete college, especially the ones more likely to drop out. We must stop ignoring the $1.5 trillion student debt crisis.

We can take a ridiculous scandal about a bunch of over-privileged wealthy families and turn it into an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the hard-working students that are counting on us to rebuild this system into the one they deserve.