The Alma Mater vs. UCLA
The Alma Mater vs. UCLA
News broke Tuesday of a nationwide, multimillion dollar college admissions scandal. Andrew Lelling, an attorney for Massachusetts was quoted saying “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either…”
Lelling is wrong. There is now, always has been, and always will be, a separate admissions process for the wealthy. It will not go away. No matter who those wealthy are, no matter what legislation we pass- the rich will find a way.
Not because they are rich, but because they are parents.
Tiger Moms, Momma Bears, Daddy Warbucks, or just a sugar Daddy parents in America operate under the assumption, the idea, or even the charge, that it is their duty is to give their children every advantage possible in life. And where you attend college can in fact be a real advantage.
And the real word there is indeed “advantage”.
This, the idea that fighting for advantage in parenting is expected, is the biggest obstacle to a just and equitable world. Because as long as that is our system, the parents with the most resources will always win for their own, and those without, will continue to fight for table scraps.
American parents are raising their families in a hyper competitive world that is continually being painted as more perilous than ever. While impending doom (razor blades in Halloween candy) may not truly lurk around every corner, upward economic mobility has indeed been on a slow and steady decline. Wage stagnation looks to stretch from one generation into another and income over a career continues to correlate to educational attainment. College remains important, if not in fact, at least in the minds of concerned parents. Elite schools who admitted 15% of applicants a decade ago now only admit 6%. Parents are truly freaking out.
We live in a competitive environment that requires a level of engagement beyond the capacity of children, requiring proactive parents to set up a path to potential success for their kids. At the top levels this competition is cut throat and more often than not, the spoils go to the children of the best resourced parents.
When advising families in the college application process I try to help them understand that for most of us, the name of the school we went to is much less important than the type of student a child has already proven to be. I work hard to help them find the right match of a school rather than chasing the school with the highest ranking. But if pressed, I will admit that for those who want to achieve remarkable things, those with the biggest aspirations, the most likely course is pretty narrow and goes through established pathways. There are a small number of schools that have produced presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and billionaires, and the odds of being the first from any given school, are incredibly small.
So what we have built is a competitive environment that gives the most benefit to those who already hold the most resources. But these well resourced parents are not just competing with the poor folks, but with each other. Again, this world is cut-throat. This environment leads to any effort to carve out a path, or channel resources to those who do not already have them- be it through state or federal funding or programs like affirmative action, to be immediately targeted as unfair.
Elite schools can afford to offer free schooling to poor kids for two reasons; first, because top schools are already well funded. Most educational donations go to the schools that already have the most money. These schools are indeed rich. Second, these schools can offer free education because the number of poor students who are accepted, is incredibly low.
The top predicting data point for who gets into an elite college is the wealth of the parent.
This happens for a constellation of reasons. These families tend to live in richer neighborhoods with better funded schools. These better funded schools tend to have more qualified staff, more stable student population, and a historical pipeline of feeding high school kids into elite colleges. These parents also tend to spend money on tutors, test prep courses, and specific extra curriculars that align with college expectations. These families also tend to make up the bulk of legacy admissions, or in other words, the parents of these families often attended elite schools themselves.
So my advice to financially struggling parents who are hoping their child will go to Harvard, is to stop saving for tuition and start spending now on a higher mortgage and tutors. Stop investing in basketball or track, and focus on fencing or crew. Even then, know that there will be some other parent willing to buy a building or bribe a coach in order to stack the deck in their favor.
As long as parenting is a high stakes zero sum self interested gladiator tournament we can never hope for any real semblance of an equitable meritocracy, not just in admissions buy in anything.
This mind-set, or maybe this reality, is why people hire their nephew or niece in both corporations and construction. It is why people lie to school districts about their address and why people cross borders without legal documents. We cringe at the thought of one demographic having privilege or advantage over another- we all say we want equality, that is until it comes to parenting.
Because of this, any proposal that would move anything, be it admissions or employment, to a place that would be fair or meritocratic is going to need to be bigger and more expansive than any of us may be willing to accept.
Because of parents.
Parenting is the best indisputable evidence that we don’t really believe in a meritocracy. Because we are either acting under the assumption that it doesn’t exist so we must fight to get our kids a fair shake, or it does exist and we are fighting to get our kids an advantage.
After driving through what feels like endless fields of well tended rural nothingness, Ann Arbor springs up out of nowhere and somehow feels like a real city. There are crowds on the sidewalks and construction everywhere. I chose the word surprising because Ann Arbor only has a population of around 120,000 people. And it isn’t a suburb of a metropolitan area, those 100 thousand people are the whole metropolitan area.
To give one an idea of how important the University of Michigan is to Ann Arbor one should know that the school has 45,000 students and approximately 25,000 employees. The University is the town.
It is by all measures, one of America’s top academic institutions with each and every department regularly ranked in the top 20, and most of those departments getting ranked in the top 5, but what the school is most known for is Final Fours. As in March Madness NCAA college basketball. The Wolverines aren’t the winningest basketball team in history but they are known to win, and they are famous for calling a timeout when they don’t have any left, and also famous for getting in trouble for paying those players what they are worth.
Sports are “worth” enough money to Michigan that the teams have their own separate campus. There are all the buildings full of students going to top ranked classes, then there are parking lots and actual train tracks, and then there are a separate group of very glossy and secure buildings housing weight rooms, practice facilities and arenas. I had the privilege of pressing my face up against the glass of one of those buildings so I could see a row of shiny basketball trophies with nets draped over them. Very tall healthy looking people were scanning their badges to get inside while I was gawking. The football team has collected more wins than any other college football team. This has also netted them a great number of awards and trophies, including three Heismans and 11 National Championships. But unlike Notre Dame or USC, Michigan keeps their awards behind glass. Michigan fans don’t appear to mind this separation as is evidenced in that this town of only 120,000 people fills up a stadium that seats 1000,000 people each and every time they play a football game.
Maybe all those people from a top ranked school simply appreciate what is hands down the best design in all of college sports- the wolverines football helmet.
I grew up in a place where none of us were catholic, no one was actually Irish, and we were nowhere near Indiana, yet everyone wore hats, t- shirts, and sweatshirts with the logo of Notre Dame. Make no mistake, the school is a serious academic institution, it is the kind of place where they require you to be smart before you go there to get educated, but really, the biggest reason why so many smart people want to go there, is football.
It is a private religious school with 12, 000 students, and from what I understand many of them play other school sponsored sports like softball and basketball, but in all of America I can find no other university that has full padded, full contact, intramural football, where non-Varsity kids can actually play the game and not just spectate. The sport is infused into the entire experience of the place, making Notre Dame the very definition of college football. It is one of the few places where a student can stroll across a picturesque quad, populated by kids who look studious, and walk right up to a world class stadium unimpeded. The stadium is built as part of the student’s life rather than a free standing football palace surrounded by parking lots built to accommodate tailgating alumni and other grown ups. Though there is also that. Consequentially the whole country feels the Fighting Irish belong to them. Rudy’s Dad never went there and he cried tears of joy just looking at the field. Ronald Reagan never went to Notre Dame but without their football team he might never have been president.
Condoleezza Rice did attend Notre Dame and as far as I know she never played the game, but it has been argued that she knows more about football than whomever might be serving as Secretary of State today… whenever today is right now, no matter who it is.
At Notre Dame even Jesus is signaling a touchdown (says ESPN, any and every time they broadcast from campus).
It is because Notre Dame is such a great school with such a great football program that I am at this moment with this sentence, petitioning the administration to replace the large murals in that golden dome building with the collected football artwork of J.C. Leyendecker. I don’t think Leyendecker is connected in any way to Notre Dame but who cares because the murals they have in there now are trash. Not trash in like they are poorly painted and I am talking trash about them, but trash in that in an effort to make an Italian guy look awesome they make a whole indigenous people look silly. It is bad enough to show the Taino Arowak people fawning over a guy who essentially destroyed them, but what really bugs me is that the dude on the far left is clearly wearing a hat made from an animal that never lived on “Hispaniola”.
I would suggest they move some of that wonderful artwork they have over by the weight room into the administration building- but that stuff isn’t just art- they are all trophies.
Oh. And they also have a church.
I had always been artistically inclined but never thought myself the “artsy” type. I still don’t. But as a kid with no direction, and even less confidence, I started college as an art major thinking it was the only area where I possessed potential. The University in its wisdom paired freshman from the same majors into the same dorm rooms and so I found myself assigned as a roommate to an actual art major.
He was good. He could draw, drew on everything, and he was a little more in line with what some might assume an art major might be, at least more so than me. He played guitar, wasn’t much of a fan of anything established or authoritarian, and also, he liked to snowboard.
I’m going to start over in describing my roommate, and say that rather than him being what one might assume of an art major, he was absolutely what one might assume of a snowboarder.
And I liked him.
He taught me how to play a mildly inappropriate Green Day song on his guitar, we traded off attending and taking notes in biology class, and the two of us watched the Beavis and Butthead marathon while everyone else was studying for finals. I had at this time never attempted snowboarding, though living where I did it, was a normal thing to do. I had been too busy concentrating on things like football, the establishment, and submitting to authority. He didn’t mind so much. We had the whole art major thing in common, and he wasn’t ever a real chatty guy in the first place so lack of common snow sports wasn’t really a thing.
But he hung out with this girl…
This girl was friendly enough, pretty enough, but above all else she was a perpetually positive person who appeared to operate on the principle that everyone everywhere should learn how to board. If I recall correctly she wasn’t an actual expert, my memory tells me she wasn’t even all that experienced, but she rode, he rode, and she wanted to ride more and “so should you” was her mantra.
As an 18 year old I tended to assume there were types of people, and I wasn’t, so I existed in a perpetual state of not belonging. Normally this meant that if you were a snowboarder, and I was not, that you would do your thing and I would watch longingly from the sidelines contemplating my own awkward existence. But this girl who hung out with my roommate didn’t see people like that and without making me feel less-than, got to work trying to convince me to snowboard. I mostly wanted to play rugby, but on one day a group of guys I knew from high school came upon a set of free lift tickets and in contemplating whether or not I should take advantage, and weighing out the pros of a free pass and familiar faces compared to the cons of having to pay money to rent equipment, this girl stepped in and sealed the deal. She offered to loan me a pair of goggles, or gloves, or something I cannot recall exactly, but whatever bit it was, was enough to convince me to give it a try.
I was horrible. But everyone is horrible their first time snowboarding and somehow I still enjoyed it.
Then I left school. After one semester, or rather we were on quarters back then, so after one quarter with my snowboarding roommate, I left for a 2 year Mormon mission in Atlanta, and I didn’t keep in contact with anyone.
But I remembered.
When I returned to school all the faces were different but the mountains and the snow were still there. I was a little older, much more mature, but definitely still lacked direction, so I went back to the last thing I remembered liking.
I went snowboarding.
I was never, nor will ever, be a physical risk taker and things like half pipes, rails, and cliffs never appealed to me but there is something magical about drifting through powder under the tram at Snowbird that just sort of shuts down your mind and carries you away into a blissful “now” unlike nearly anything else I have ever experienced. I was in love. I went with friends, I went by myself, I went almost every day save Sundays from the first day the resorts opened till that last day in May when the snow turned to rocks.
But then I moved down South where it wasn’t the same and I drifted into other things. It has been years since I’ve been on a lift and the last time I pulled out my goggles the foam fell apart. It was as if the dry dusty foam was my youth crumbling in my hands. I felt old.
Then I turned on the Winter Olympics to watch Shaun White win the gold and there was that snowboarder girl interviewing the half pipe champ of the world!
It was Tina Dixon.
I always knew her name but apparently didn’t pay enough attention or watch the right shows between then and now to know that that girl who was so positive and enthusiastic all those years ago wasn’t all talk or fluff or sparkle without substance but was a real life dream chaser. All of those great things about her back then, were really who she was, and if the television is telling the truth (of course it is) that is who she still is.
When I was a kid there were television shows that portrayed college. They were bright, shiny, and had laugh tracks. Where I came from college was just part of growing up, it was a natural next step. So it made sense that Denise from the Cosby show went off to college after high school, it was natural that the kids from Saved by the Bell would all do the same, and thanks to a lack of cable- I watched both those shows. Being a teenage heterosexual white male meant I felt myself expert in pretty much everything, and as I watched those shows with my finely tuned critical thinking mind, I knew that what I was watching, was ridiculous.
I saw students living in dorms where professors and influential alumni frequently engaged in teaching moments punctuated by one-liners and every now and then, there would be a song and dance number that was supposed to somehow appear normal. I always chalked it up to lack of casting budget when the school’s quarterback would also star in the school play with a confused pre-med major doing everything she could to impress the dean. I knew college wasn’t really like that.
I knew this because my parents had both graduated college, so had all the parents of my friends. So I was confident in knowing that above all else college was: harder than high school, expensive, and that athletes did not go to class let alone star in plays. Those shows with all that good natured life lesson fraternizing and goofy situations, were nothing more than B level showbiz lies.
Then came last week.
I work at a small liberal arts college in Southern California and we have a live bulldog as a mascot. His doghouse is a miniature version of the school’s main administration building, complete with Greek columns and terra cotta roof tiles. He was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness and so just last week, the president of the university, the provost, and hundreds of students and administrators all gathered in the amphitheater to watch the bulldog, dressed in cap and gown, receive his diploma and be sincerely praised over the podium while everyone cheered. We graduated the dog.
It was surreal. It was almost as if Freddy from a Different World, the bi-racial adopter of whatever social movement was in vogue, the meddler attempting to solve a roommate’s generational family drama, the silly one, had taken it upon herself to honor the ailing symbol of our school’s pride. Except Freddy is fictional and I was there in real life.
This alone would have just been cute, but two weeks before that was homecoming. A few hours before the big homecoming football game I sat in the memorial chapel and watched as the music majors played polka music and a crowd of students and professors danced on stage in lederhosen singing a song about study abroad in Vienna. After that number was over the president of the university did an actual song and dance to introduce an alumni, whose name is on several of our buildings, who then came up on stage and announced a fund raising campaign. It was almost as if Zack Morris had gotten Mr. Belding to participate in a half-baked scheme to save the library. Except Zack isn’t real and the tubas in that chapel definitely were.
It made me question my entire upbringing.
All this time I thought those shows were not only fake but ridiculously preposterous. I thought college kids, including myself when I was one, were mostly cynical and isolated. I recall being an undergrad not knowing the name of any adult on campus who wasn’t my professor, and absolutely none of those professors knew me. I remember college being just like my teachers and parents had told me; harder than high school, expensive, and mostly about football games. Fraternities were not inclusive bands of brothers but rather exclusionary bastions of alcoholism and sexual abuse. I found my place on the rugby team but no one ever came to watch our games. We had to pitch in to buy our own uniforms and the administration was always reluctant to let us use the field. I regularly had to skip important games because my part time job had inflexible hours.
There is a useful lesson here. Almost the kind of lesson a wise old cafeteria cook would teach a disappointed freshman after failing a test. The lesson is that college can be exactly like I thought it would be, or, to my surprise, it could be exactly like TV. Both exist. Both are right, or depending on where you end up, either could be wrong. But I didn’t learn this lesson till long into adulthood and I mostly learned it by mistake. Over the years I have traveled across America and visited hundreds of college campuses. I have studied college types, different educational models, and counseled hundreds of aspiring college students. And what I tell those kids, and as often as possible try to tell their parents, is that college isn’t one thing. It can be all sorts of different things. Sometimes it is like Hillman College with singing and dancing pre-med majors, and at other times it is State University with power forwards courting the NBA. It isn’t really about which one is or isn’t real, it is more about what sort of experience you want to have. What is even more relevant is that all of these different types of experiences lead to different results depending on what kind of kid you are. These experiences vary so much, that when thinking about college it makes sense to ignore the question, or even more, ignore the advice of others, regarding what college is like, but rather consider more the qualities and needs of the kid in question.
But so many of the people I know don’t do this. Not only don’t they do this, but they ignore me, and others like me, when we give advice about what college can be (see what I did there?). Most people prefer their personal anecdotes and experiences and then pass those along to the next generation as universal truth. We all think we know best because we were there. And sure, you were in fact there, but you weren’t everywhere. You can surely say how it was for you, at that place, in that time, but that is all you can say. Because everywhere, and everyone, are not all the same. And because not every person is the same, if we want each person to grow and thrive, we should start by realizing that maybe not everyone should go to the same place we did or do the same things. Maybe, if we didn’t like our college experience, it shouldn’t cause us to condemn the whole concept of college, but rather it is possible we weren’t well matched to our institution. Or, then again if we loved college, we may need to consider the idea that our school might not be best for everyone else.
I think most of us get this, but only when it comes to rooting interests or US News & World Report rankings. When thinking of colleges outside our own experience we think good better best, as in who is ranked higher or who won which bowl. That isn’t what I mean.
What I mean is that at some places you are 1 of 100,000 other fans in the Rose Bowl, and at others you do song and dance numbers with the provost.
I still can’t believe we graduated the dog.
I work in an ivory tower, but I’m kind of like the door man there, not the sage- or the king, or a princess. But I’m okay with this. Well… I’m mostly okay with it.
You see the problem with staying in ivory towers is that you can get lost and isolated up in the clouds. Clouds aren’t quite the same as the ground. On the ground, a person can just sort of stand there, naturally. Clouds are immaterial, and for a human to be there requires some sort of extra construction or apparatus to hold them up.
Its good to work at the door of the tower because you can walk around and remember what dirt feels like and how plants grow. From up above trees look small and while you might be able to see over walls, it gets easy to forget how hard it is to climb either one.
But if you spend all of your time in the weeds you never get to see more than a few feet. It can be hard to come up with new ideas, or to even really see what is going on, with limited vision.
So with my role in the tower, standing on the ground floor showing people the door, I get a little bit of both the up and the down. I head upstairs and see what they are doing up there, then I go back outside and try to tell people about it. Its good work.
Truth be told I would probably enjoy more time in the books. I like the stuff in books and I like the view. But in my mind the stuff in and up there are pointless unless it does something down and out there, and I have been out there enough to know that the gap between in and up and down and out is huge.I hear and read a lot of things about the environment in college, but few of those opinions or descriptions are coming from people who work in college. Or are currently attending college. Sometimes it comes from people who remember college. People in the weeds are talking about the tower.
Then I talk to, or read the work of, people in the tower, and to them the people in the weeds are a “them.” A them is very different than a we. Making the we bigger than it is now is a big deal to me.
The best thing for we requires both the tower and the weeds.
So I’ll stick with my job.
Because I had some extra time on a Sunday afternoon, I thought I would take the time to convert the cost of college into minimum wage hours. I may need to reevaluate how I spend my free time.
The current federally mandated minimum wage is $7.25.
The current average in-state tuition at a public university is $9,410. That figures out to 1,297 hours of work.
Just for fun, and perspective, the minimum wage and average tuition in 1970 was $1.60 and $358 respectively. That represents a 481% increase in minimum wage hours.
But that is just tuition. People also need to sleep and eat, which costs more money, especially if you intend to sleep indoors. To pay the average room, board, AND the average tuition, a minimum wage worker must put in 40 hours per week- for 15 months.
College accreditation boards assume (dictate) that a full time college student will spend between 24-36 hours per week in class or studying. The variance is due to the variations in class content and student aptitude. Let’s call it 30 hours for simplicity.
40 hours working, plus 30 hours schooling, leaves 98 hours per week to also fit in 56 hours of sleeping, giving a student 6 hours per day left over. How luxurious. Anyone can do that right?
Perhaps one can. It would be hard of course, but anything worth doing is hard right?
Maybe those extra six hours a day are necessary for beer-pong and protesting things. Or maybe they are needed to work out ways to find a minimum wage job that will schedule you for 40 hours per week, which doesn’t happen because that’s full time and requires benefits, so probably the student needs two part time jobs that will each schedule out 20 hours a week. If they are both on campus this could work, cut down on travel time and whatnot, but if not this kid will need to schedule in some travel time. On a bus. Because I forgot to figure in the expenses associated with a car. Or laundry. I’m going to pretend this is a pretty responsible student and assume they cut out beer-pong.
The math proves it can be done- at least in a perfect vacuum without unexpected expenses or buying toiletries- or income taxes.
But… and of course there is a but…
This student will not be able to do an internship, play any sports or join any clubs. This student will have to go to class, study, and work, forget playing around. No high jinks or animal house ballyhoo, which sounds like the no nonsense real life dictates any responsible parent would tell their child. Especially if that parent is doling out advice with the wisdom of their own experience from back in 1970.
Which makes me a little sad and terrified.
Sad because things are indeed different now, but also terrified because college’s usefulness is really in all those things outside the classroom. Doing good in class puts a lot of stuff inside your head but it doesn’t put your butt into a job. Most of the things that lead to jobs, like relationship networks, internships, experiences, and interviews, all happen after hours.
That isn’t even considering the things that lead to actual learning and thinking, like study abroad, field work, and participation in diverse experiential activities. This minimum wage working, public school going, student will be working very hard to get the bare minimum of what colleges offer and is very likely going to get some negative feedback from Mom and Dad when they ask for extra money or bring home loads of extra laundry and this student will probably get a lecture about how it was back in the old days and how kids didn’t complain and they did it themselves so quit being a complainey little snowflake.
So, dear snowflake, let me help you a little. What follows is not science, nor does it consider things like taxes and interest, but it gives you a thumbnail of how now compares to then in the spirit of making apples versus oranges more into apples versus crab apples.
Salary- $6,186= $515.50 per month no taxes
Cost of home- $23,600/3 years salary/$65.50 per month for 30 years no interest
New car $3,542/$59 per month for 5 years no interest
Healthcare $380 per year= $31 per month
Rent $65.50 + Car $59 + Ins $31 = $155.50 or 30.16% of income
Minimum wage- $1.60
Tuition at local state U- $358= 223 hours minimum wage work
Salary- $51,939= $4,328.25 no taxes
Cost of home- $292,891/5 year salary/$813 per month for 30 years no interest
New car- $30, 152/$502 per month for 5 years no interest
Healthcare $9,810= $817 per month
Rent $813 + Car $502 + Health $817 = $2132 or 49.25% of income
Minimum wage- $7.25
Tuition at local state U- $9410= 1297 hours minimum wage work
College is 481% more expensive today when converted to minimum wage hours.
Legacy admissions are not a leg up, they are a hand out to the already haves.
Data shows that the number one predictor of the likely education level a child will receive is the level of education the parents have already attained. This is not due to some sort of amniotic intelligence transfer but rather the tendency of most teachers (parents) to teach others, to simply do what they did.
People who have gone to elite colleges are more likely to know the application process, understand the school’s expectations, and better yet, they often know the people making the admissions decisions.
If you look at those who attend elite schools you will find that most of them had parents who went to elite schools, or at least good schools, and as one might guess, these parents also have a good amount of money. Whether the schooling or the money came first doesn’t really matter, but there is surely a solid correlation. In addition, you will find that most of those who are accepted into elite schools had tutors and took test prep classes during grade and high school. These kids being tutored are the A students, not the ones at risk of athletic ineligibility. On top of that, you will also find that most who gain entry into elite colleges attended high schools that have previously sent other students to elite colleges. Turns out that following well-traveled paths is more likely to get you there than forging new trails.
There are few, if any, immaculately conceived scholars who rise from nowhere with potential so obvious that Harvard can see it.
Most people who haven’t been to Harvard don’t know many others who have. Most who never attended Princeton, don’t really know what Princeton is looking for in an applicant. Most at mediocre high schools, are unaware that most at great high schools are taking extra SAT prep classes. Some, who never went to Yale but still managed to accumulate wealth, spend some of that wealth to send their kids to schools where the children of Yale grads go.
That is how people get in.
If you want to investigate potential unfairness in admissions to elite schools, maybe we should look first, I repeat first (not as an afterthought), at the practice of giving preference to those who are already advantaged in the application process.
In light of the Department of Justice’s announced intentions to investigate colleges that enact affirmative action policies in admissions decisions, it might be helpful for the public (and the Whitehouse) to understand a few things about college admissions.
First, you need to know that college admissions is not like the NBA draft. Schools do not collect a pile of applicants and then rank them all starting at their number one draft pick and then start moving their way down the board until they run out of spots. It does not, nor has it ever, worked that way.
While most all colleges are a little different and policies and ideologies vary, the basic standard is that rather than starting at a ranking and working their way down, what admissions boards do is start by setting a floor, or basic cutoff at the bottom, below which the school doubts the applicant’s ability to handle the course of study. This normally consists of a minimum GPA or SAT/ACT score. Once the minimum is set, everyone above that cutoff is “qualified” and fair game for admission. Past that, whatever policy, practice, or magical spell the school wishes to employ to fill up their freshman class, is up to them.
This gets tricky when the school has more qualified applicants than openings, or in some cases, more openings than qualified applicants. In both cases, there are fights, arguments, exceptions, and shenanigans all around in every direction. But however these dust ups get settled, and in all cases, what you need to know is that there are no draft style leader boards with applicants ranked 1-2,000 and consequentially it is impossible for one applicant to take another “more qualified” applicant’s spot.
Why this is important to know, is to help you avoid the mistake of thinking that there are regular, or even rare, scenarios where candidate A loses their spot to a less qualified candidate B. This does not happen because, in almost all cases, the only students being reviewed are above the predetermined floor and consequentially they are all “qualified”, and if they are all qualified, it is up to the committee to decide who they want to let in, or who is “most” qualified. Consequentially, determining who is more qualified than another is so subjective that it is impossible for you, or I, or anyone outside of that closed-door room, to be able to make that determination. Some schools (public) decide that within the pool of qualified applicants they will privilege kids from in-state. Some (private) may decide they want a sampling of students from all over the globe. Some schools work hard to recruit students to specific programs, like math or science, others may value racial and ethnic representation and the experience diversity brings to a campus, but in all cases, remember that the admissions committees are assembling these classes from a pool of candidates who have already been deemed qualified.
But of course there are always exceptions, or things that look like exceptions. Folk lore holds that these exceptions normally come in the cases of athletes and racial minorities. In addressing this lore, allow me to be a little crass for a moment.
What colleges care about most, are rankings and money. While rankings are nice for bragging rights, they are mostly relevant in how they can translate into more donations and applications, which ultimately means more money. So really, what colleges care about most, is just money.
If you have money, or the ability to bring in money, a college will let you in. Period. This is why the NCAA gets very finicky about minimum academic requirements. This independent third party has set some minimum academic standards for all schools to follow and then deems any applicants below those standards ineligible to play, and thereby unable to bring the college more money. So those kids don’t get in. This is also why some rankings, like US News & World Report, put certain metrics like graduation rates, incoming class GPA, and SAT scores, into their formula. If a college compromises on their admission standards, they get a lower ranking. Colleges do not like to drop in rankings.
Please keep in mind that normally the NCAA minimum standard is way below the average college’s admissibility floor, and that the desirable US News reported averages are way above the normal college’s admissibility floor. With this in mind, when and why would a college violate its own standards to let in an unqualified or less qualified student?
The two biggest, or most frequent, instances of compromised college standards are for athletes and legacies. Most Americans are familiar with the reasoning of the athlete exception, you might even be able to name their names, but in case you are less familiar with what a legacy is, this is an applicant who is the child of an alum. Legacies get preference because they are more likely to not only translate into future tuition dollars via children and grandchildren, but they are more likely to become donors. Every University and college wants to become a part of your family. More specifically, they want to become that charming, lovable, member of your family that shows up to every family function, but is probably broke and will definitely pull you into a side room and ask for a small loan. This family member will let Junior in, despite Junior’s C- average. Colleges will take Junior because he brings along extra money.
Racial minorities do not naturally bring along extra money. Diversity is indeed a metric considered in most rankings, but it is only one of many and henceforth far outweighed by GPAs and SATs. Because of this, colleges are not likely to let in any applicant who is below their admissibility floor simply because they are a minority… unless they have money.
So to review, let us say the floor is a 3.5 GPA and the college in question only has one spot left.
Scenario 1: Applicant A is a white male with a 3.4 and applicant B is a black female with a 3.4 and a very sad story. Neither are admissible, neither get in.
Scenario 2: Applicant A is a white male with a 3.6 and Applicant B is a black female with a 3.5 and no sad story. Both are admissible, I probably take B.
Scenario 3: Applicant A is a white male with a 1.7 and a huge trust fund and applicant B is a black female with a 3.9 who conquered poverty to get a great SAT score. A gets in.
Scenario 4: Applicant A is a white male with a 3.9 and great SAT while Applicant B is a black female with a 3.6 and a moderate SAT. A gets in.
One last scenario just to make a point: Applicant A is a white male with a 1.7 and a rich alum parent and Applicant B is a black male who runs the 40 in 4 seconds flat and can bench press 400 pounds. A gets in.
A gets in because A already has money and B might break his leg.
College admissions is a high stakes, high stress, poker game for sure, but let one thing be clear. If you are a qualified candidate, you will not lose your spot to an unqualified competitor simply because they aren’t white.
Unless they are rich.