Privilege in College Admissions

~From an Ivy League Admit~

This school year, many Oyster River seniors began the long, stressful journey through the college admissions process. For some, this meant writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting college essays, taking the SAT one last time, or sending in last-minute scholarship applications.

But if you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that not too far away, some students began the same process with a different strategy, one that far outweighs the power of a heart-wrenching essay or perfect GPA…

Okay, I know what you might be thinking. Next fall, I’ll be attending Yale University, one of the many schools involved in the admissions scandal. This might seem like a rather odd story to write as someone who is absolutely thrilled to be going to college next fall. However, now that I’ve been given the opportunity to spend four years at one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S., I feel obligated to talk more about the things I’m not so thrilled about concerning the admissions process. More importantly, this scandal opens the doors to a necessary conversation about corruption, privilege, and wealth that I believe everyone, especially students attending these institutions, should be a part of.

Privilege in college admissions is something that impacts every applicant, not just those living in extreme wealth or poverty. The reality is, students don’t have as much control in the admissions process as they might think. Of course, there are countless examples of times when relentless hard work and merit landed a student in their dream school. That said, a brief skim through college news will show you that integrity isn’t the only defining feature in admissions.

After spending the past year engulfed in a whirlwind of applications and preparation for college, the admissions scandal didn’t surprise me at all. Instead, the controversy looked to me like just one more glaring reason why college admissions need to change. 

What Happened

In March, 2019, media and news outlets erupted with stories describing various cheating scandals involving at least eight elite U.S. universities. According to “Here’s what universities are saying about the alleged college admissions cheating scandal” by CNN, over fifty wealthy and influential people were involved in the scandal, which included bribes to cheat on tests and admit students as athletic recruits. Various celebrities are facing possible jail time for their involvement in this scandal.

It’s rich privilege.

-Henry ’19

“I’m glad that people are being prosecuted for this, because it’s not fair for rich people to be able to do whatever they want,” said Laurel Gordon (‘19), who will be attending the University of New Hampshire after taking a gap year. “It’s rich privilege,” Grace Henry (‘19) agreed. In regards to Lori Loughlin’s daughter, who was unfairly admitted to the University of Southern California, Henry stated, “I think that she knew [about what her mom did], but she’s putting on an act. I think that she should be kicked out and have to reapply.”

Maddy Alphonse (‘19) agreed that these actions were completely unacceptable, especially for people who are already in a position of power. “Rich people are already at such an advantage for getting into college. They have so many assets at their disposal, yet they still feel the need to bribe their way in; it’s disgusting,” she said.

Alphonse’s point about the inherent privilege that some students have in admissions is one that many universities have neglected to address. In the wake of one of the biggest scandals in the history of college admissions, the influence of money in education has become a heated topic in schools.

“It would be naive to think that money does not play a role in the admissions process. I would like to believe that it doesn’t, but at the same time, this scandal unearthed more conversation about the legal ways that those who are privileged with money can go about [the admissions process],” said Kim Cassamas, counselor at ORHS.

Why I’m Not Surprised

“I wasn’t surprised for one minute. Personally, I wonder how many other college consultants are out there doing the same thing,” said Cassamas. With years of experience and insight on college admissions, Cassamas brought up a point that new applicants, including myself, are just now discovering.

The college admissions process begins well before your junior year of high school. In fact, it begins well before you even start high school altogether. When I began to fill out my applications, it became clearer and clearer that I was painting a picture of myself all throughout and before my life. The opportunities that an applicant has before they even begin pursuing an education are pivotal in whether or not they will be accepted into an elite university. One of these opportunities is based solely off of an applicant’s family: legacy status. 

A ‘legacy’ applicant is a student who has a familial relationship with alumni from a certain school. According to “It’s not just corruption. Entrance into elite US colleges is rigged in every way” by The Guardian, “the acceptance rate for legacy applicants at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, and Stanford is between two and three times higher than the general admission rate.” The article also noted that legacy students and their families are disproportionately white and wealthy, which gives them privilege well beyond the admissions process.

In addition to legacy status, a student’s educational opportunities before college greatly affect their admission into a university or college. According to “Is There a Private School Advantage in College Admissions?” by College Transitions, public high school counselors spend only about 22% of their time on college-related counseling, whereas private high school counselors spend about 55%. 

Unfortunately, the corrupt admissions process is not exclusive to higher-ed institutions. Many of the most elite U.S. private high schools, including local schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and Derryfield, are need-aware, meaning that the amount of money that your family is able to pay is a factor in whether or not you will be admitted. Even simply applying for financial aid at these schools will lower your chance for admission, leading to a high concentration of wealthy students.

A disproportionately large amount of the 10% of students in the U.S. who attend private school later go to an elite university. According to “Meet the Yalies” by The Harvard Crimson, 37% and 42% of 2019 Harvard and Yale admits (respectively) attended private high schools.

As a public school non-legacy, applying to an elite institution seemed so outrageous that I questioned whether or not the application fee and time to write essays were worth it. That sense of inferiority is part of the reason why such a large portion of students are excluded from these institutions.

What This Means For Oyster River

“Our rate of students that go onto four year colleges is very high, which is why a lot of time is spent preparing them for that,” said Cassamas. Despite ORHS’ high population of students attending college, Cassamas explained, “I don’t think that this scandal will have an impact on students here applying to college next year. Partly, I think that’s because of the schools involved in the scandal, because those very elite schools are a different ball game [in terms of admissions]. The one thing that I would think might be impacted is athletes. Oyster River doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of students going D1 or D2, so I don’t know if it would impact our athletes. But I do wonder if schools will tighten up in the recruiting process,” she added.

We definitely have families here that have college consultants, and we have parents asking, ‘should I be doing this?’ That’s something that’s growing, and I have conversations with students and parents about college consultants every year more often.


Although Cassamas doesn’t foresee an immediate impact on next year’s applicants, she has seen gradual changes in how students and parents approach the admissions process. “We definitely have families here that have college consultants, and we have parents asking, ‘should I be doing this?’ That’s something that’s growing, and I have conversations with students and parents about college consultants every year more often,” said Cassamas.

Finally, Cassamas expressed a need for reform that extends beyond the illegal aspects of the admissions scandal. “I think that there are more problems than the scandal that need to be addressed,” she said. 

What We Can Change

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is orhs-lib40orcsd.org_20190513_115214_001-1.jpg

“It saddens me that some worthy students have been missing the opportunity to learn about their passions because others are illegally fighting their way in. I’m glad that the scandals are surfacing now because changes need to be made to give every person a truly equal opportunity to be admitted to these schools,” said Leah Zamansky (‘20). 

In the wake of such a controversy, it’s often difficult to look past the celebrities and powerful figures involved in the scandal. However, as Zamansky explained, beyond these media-villains are worthy applicants that missed an opportunity based on the family that they were born into. Reforming the admissions process is about more than just preventing big-money scandals; it’s also about giving students equal opportunity to pursue their passions. 

After spending time talking with admissions officers, school counselors, and students, I’ve developed an ever-growing list of changes that I think would help reform admissions. Firstly, the need-aware admissions system that many U.S. colleges and private high schools use directly disadvantages low-income students. Unfortunately, the few top-tier colleges that offer need-blind admissions also require pricey application fees and don’t offer students the option to not include standardized tests in their application. On top of that, low-income public school students are already at a disadvantage in terms of resources from college counselors to extracurricular opportunities.

Currently, the problems within college admissions seem daunting, but the magnitude of the admissions scandal has highlighted the need for change in the public eye. Most importantly, the scandal has challenged the idea that college is in any way a measure of personal success and worth. As the national mindset shifts, I expect to see admissions become more equitable and transparent for students. If not, you can expect another article from me, this time in the Yale Daily News.

Need-blind admissions (for colleges and private high schools)

“Right now is a difficult time to be a middle class or lower class student who is wanting to invest in a private education, because right now in our country it has become something only accessible for families or are financially able to do it. In reality, education should be a dream accessible to everyone and not just a select few. It is also important that universities not advertise that they are ‘solving the problem’ by providing aid, because in reality this makes the students who don’t receive the aid they need feel less than or not worthy which is honestly unacceptable,” said Jane Spear (‘19).

Eliminate application fees

“I only applied to a few colleges because between application fees upwards of $60 and sending in SAT scores it would be so much money. I felt bad for my parents because they literally spent like $300 on 6 schools and that felt like so much and I didn’t want them spending extra on reach schools that I most likely couldn’t get into. I didn’t apply to any reaches because it didn’t seem worth the hundreds of dollars,” said Cam St. Ours (‘19). 

Cross referencing applications

“People were bought within the system, but none of them were connected to the actual admissions office, so it would help if there were checks and balances within admissions to verify stuff,” said Cassamas. “With the Common App, application numbers have skyrocketed because it’s easier for students to apply to more schools. I think that that has hit the admissions offices hard across the board at all schools because they have so many more applications to go through. It’s hard to know how much cross referencing and double checking they can do. I always try to get a lot of a student’s information in my letter to confirm what I know they’re putting on their application to say, yes, this student really does x, y and z,” she added.

More funding for public school education

One of the most pivotal parts of understanding the importance and gravity of the admissions scandal is being able to empathize with others. Growing up with access to a public school with abundant resources, I was not only able to pursue my own passions, but I was able to learn from the vastly different passions of my peers. Public school has taught me that everybody has a place in the classroom, regardless of ability, background, or socio-economic status. 

More funding and opportunities in public schools provides more support for less privileged students and teaches impressionable youth about valuing diversity.

Less reliance on test scores (test optional)

“The people who have the money to pay for tutors on the SAT have been proven to do better,” said Cassamas. According to “I am more than a number: The case against SAT scores in college admissions” by The Stanford Daily, SAT scores directly correlate with socioeconomic status and are a poor indicator of success in college. The article stated: “the SAT test in particular is a measure of whether a student can afford to ‘learn the tricks’ of the tests. Even signing up for the test costs about $50. While students can receive aid from the government, the fee waivers only cover two tests, while others who can afford it can and do take the test three or more times.”

Evaluating if college is a logical next-step

“We’ve had the highest number of Career and Technical Education (CTE) applications this year. We’re really trying to boost our other options. If you look at the student loan crisis and all the stuff that’s going on right now, I’m always wondering if we’re doing enough talking about if college is really the next best step or if people are just doing it because they feel like that’s what they have to do. I want to be responsible and mindful about it, and I want to make sure that students are doing what they want and not just what they feel they should be doing,” said Cassamas.