Last week, as the news broke about the “admissions scandal,” I thought it was just old news. The many, many ways that the wealthy have unfair access to, well everything, is just not surprising. Inside Higher Ed has nicely summarized the list of ways that access manifests itself in higher ed in the article “Wealth and Admissions.” From good K-12 schools, to tutors, to summer programs, to family legacies, to just plain financial wherewithal, there is nothing equal about access to elite higher education. We save a few spots for new talent (talent from families not already part of the elite) and get on with our protected pathways for those who have already made it to the upper middle class and above.
None of this is new. None of this is surprising. Some wealthy people have found a new way of garnering access, but really, what did we expect? We set up the system this way and it isn’t pretty.
So here’s the “are you kidding me” part. Media outlets spent a week talking about this, as if that proportion of coverage was warranted in the sea of other news we should be attending to. Celebrities were involved, so were sports, so here we go. Meanwhile, legislators are considering ways to rectify the unfair advantages that this scandal unearthed. The Wall Street Journal reports statements and proposals focused on limiting tax-deductions for university donors who have children attending the school; regulating early-decision since it undermines the ability for students to juggle offers and privileges those who can pay; fining colleges with the lowest proportion of low-income students; and, of course, limiting affirmative action. Why are we allowing this bluster to go on? These practices have long been scrutinized, to no avail, and they are only focused on the lucky few.
It isn’t that I don’t understand how rigged the system is. Nor is it that I don’t understand how invested we are in the notion that merit is the way that students get into elite schools. That belief helps us nurture the hope that upward mobility is real and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is the clearest path out of poverty. Of course this belief is true, once in a while. Some of the students admitted to those elite schools really did work harder than the rest to gain admission with a status of unknown, under-represented, and under-resourced. I should add that many of the wealthy students enrolled also worked hard and had no idea of the advantages their socio-economic status brought them. They were honestly engaged in the studying and volunteering and extra-curricular activities necessary for admission to an elite school.
What I don’t understand is why we allow this to pull our attention away from the daily inequities that plague the majority of students in the United States. Approximately 73% of all students in colleges and universities in 2016 were in public universities, and the majority of those institutions are focused on being accessible and affordable. Most of the students in these public colleges come from public K-12 schools. In every one of these public colleges and universities, a portion of the students is truly struggling with finances or adequate academic support or navigating the mysteries of higher education with no family history of higher education to help them find their way. Those colleges and universities are trying to manage decreasing funds to support the needs of their students. This is where our attention needs to be.
If legislators want to focus on education at all, then the focus should be on making sure that there is really access to our public institutions. This means adequate funding from pre-K through 12th grade. Let’s find ways to truly invest in primary and secondary education so that students from all neighborhoods are adequately prepared for college. Then let’s reinvest in our public higher education. The erosion in funding over the last 25 years is making it a challenge to meet the needs of all of the students enrolled. Frequently these gaps in funding hit the neediest students the hardest. This dis-investment needs to be reversed so that when those properly supported K-12 students get to college, the support doesn’t disappear.
You know, public education was one of the best ideas this country has ever had. It has supported social mobility and, after many a battle, it is becoming inclusive. But it isn’t perfect yet. We aren’t meeting the needs of all communities and despite the progress toward greater diversity and inclusion, we are still leaving too many students behind. And we do so at our peril, because many of the jobs in our emerging economy rely on an educated workforce. When we under-fund accessible education, we under-invest in the economic health of this nation.
So, let’s not get distracted by the unfair access to the elite schools. We can let the courts sort that out. Let’s get obsessed with meeting the needs of the many instead of the few. Those of us working in public education are out here trying to make the promise of America real, but we could really use some more support.