Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Today’s College Admission Scandal Demonstrates Precisely Why Underserved People Need to be in Industry

I wasn’t surprised to see all of the news reports of wealthy parents getting caught gaming the college admissions system. I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of messages I received asking me to weigh in on the controversy. I must be doing something right because they were asking me as someone who does the same work but who is also pretty vocal about the inequities in the system, how wealth has impacted it in terrible ways, and trying to provide meaningful solutions. The headlines today fit pretty squarely with what I am against.

I am the founder of two college admissions companies. Both companies started by aiming to support underserved students. As someone who qualified as an underserved student myself and as a former teacher, I really understood the problems in college access firsthand. I think that’s the first part of the reason why my companies are so different: the person running the companies is invested in the mission.

But the second part has to do with today’s scandal: it’s not just that I’m present and invested, but my companies are run with this different understanding, or epistemology:

The premise is that a majority of students are under-matched to college. The scandal that we saw today revealed what happens with fewer students and families: overmatching. Even though it is fewer students, it’s a system that favors their success over everyone else’s.

As someone who has been in education and college access for decades, the problem of overmatching is quite prevalent in certain communities, but not for everyone. That’s because it’s a difficult process to replicate legally (as we saw today with the racketeering charges) and financially. When students are overmatched to an Ivy League college, for example, someone will have to step in to continue the facade with high-priced tutors or bribing (again, as we saw today). That certainly doesn’t stop people from trying. Pressure to attend the right college is pervasive in all communities, so if one is able to use her wealth to ensure it happens, of course she will at least try.

For communities I’ve worked with, we see the result of overmatching when students drop out. I won’t point specific fingers; just look at the college dropout rates for charter schools.

The difference is that in that first group, there is a mechanism in place to support those students so it can continue. In the second example, there is not.

This means that in some instances we overcorrect and send underserved students to colleges that are a huge undermatch. For example, we know that of all students who qualify to enroll in a BS/BA program, nearly 28% attends community college instead. Of these students, the largest portion is Hispanic, nearly 40%, with African Americans at 27%, and mixed race at 28%. That might sound pretty bad on its own, but it gets worse. In California, of all African Americans who enter community college, only 2% will transfer in two years, 15% in four years, and 17% in six years. And one more thing — research is also showing us that students who enter the community college system are paying more than if they had gone directly to a BS/BA granting institution.*

Just to summarize what that means — we’ve taken fully qualified students of color and put them in a process where, if they earn a degree at all, it will be more expensive and take more time.

And there are a ton of these examples from how students are able to take Advanced Placement courses to arguments against affirmative action.

While there are plenty of reasons for this, I believe the overarching one is this:

The people who set out the solve these problems either through industry or policy, are mostly people who participated in, run in circles with people who participated in, or in some way benefit from, the scandal that was outlined today.

Having been in this business, I have often times encountered people who would like me to do the things that were outlined today. Because I won’t, we’re certainly not as profitable as we could be. But not landing in prison seems to be a great trade-off.

Over the years we’ve also received quite a bit of feedback about our focus on underserved students. Some say the market is too small. Others assume the problem is of their own making. While others assume by saying we target underserved students, we either don’t mean them specifically or they don’t want it to mean them, as though they are a charity case of some kind. My pushback is that this philosophy doesn’t impact who; it impacts how. And this strategy of developing solutions that address the needs of people who don’t have means should be seen as imperative to how we develop our identity as caring, democratic people.

This is a striking relationship for me in another realm. I live in San Francisco and I grew up in the Bay Area. I simply don’t recognize what’s happened around me. But the more shocking thing is that we continue to drive prices up and displace more and more people as if we haven’t learned a lesson. And when we ask these companies what to do about the problem they’ve created, the solutions range from ridiculous to implausible, from adding more portable toilets on Market St to apps that track feces on the street to taxing the larger companies with no plan to use the money. Are we really saying that no one in those companies came from a place of empathy to know how to build something that large without displacing thousands of people?

Regarding college admissions, is anyone running that system so that it doesn’t keep privileging students with massive wealth?

This is the same system that when we look at admissions to Harvard, we wonder about the percentage of African American and Latino students and not the increasing percentage of legacies and children of donors who are admitted each year to the point of actually suing Harvard. Somehow that money has more merit than hard-working students.

This is also the same system that intentionally puts students who don’t have the cash in incredible debt by preying on their lack of knowledge of college financials.

And this is also the same system that when it comes to athletics, will admit thousands of students to play on the court and field, make billions from their talent, then completely dismiss them when they prioritize their education and health.

It’s a system that needs fixing and it starts by looking at who is leading it.

I want to be a bit cautious with one thing here. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, especially in industry, we often times stop with representation. I believe that is the first step of a longer process that leads to epistemological change. When people who typically are not put in positions of power are able to lead, we have this great opportunity to shift the ways of thinking, to do something new. And in this case, we create a system that addresses broader inequities that will make us all better people.

Speaking to that last point, I meet parents every day who feel immense pressure to make sure their kids get into a great college. This isn’t a criticism of them. This is a criticism of a system that allows and profits off of their insecurities too.

*The data for this piece came from Abigail Bates, The Campaign for College Opportunity, and the Institute for College Access and Success.

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