Everyone Has A Role To Play In Fixing The College Admissions Problem

As a college counselor at an independent school in New Orleans, I can advocate for changes to the system and educate the families in my care about ethical choices. As donors and philanthropists, you also play a role.


The ongoing and salacious scandal called Operation Varsity Blues, in which wealthy parents subverted the selective U.S. college admissions system through fraud and bribery to benefit their children, continues to roil the college admissions profession. As decision letters from the most selective colleges—including those mentioned in the FBI affidavit—landed in student email boxes this week, conversations about ethics and responsibility filled my social media feeds.

The deep inequities built into the path to higher education are highlighted in Operation Varsity Blues, and we all have a role to play in removing barriers to educational opportunities. As former college admissions officer and a current college counselor at an independent school in New Orleans, I can advocate for changes to the system and educate the families in my care about ethical choices.

As donors and philanthropists, you also play a role. Here are some ideas about how you can help create an equitable college admission process:

    1. Support organizations that provide access to college admissions information.

    There are excellent organizations all over the United States that provide to students free preparation for and guidance through college admissions. These groups offer free test prep, college tours, summer opportunities, application assistance, and financial aid advice. National Organization for College Access offers a list of over 400 college access nonprofits that need financial support. [You can also find vetted nonprofit projects on GlobalGiving devoted to equity in education.]

    2. Donate to colleges that provide the greatest social mobility and often have the least money.

    There is a significant divide between the haves and have nots among universities in the United States. Consider giving to a college or university with a small financial endowment, where your gift could have greater impact. Those colleges are more likely to educate students of color, first-generation students, and immigrant students than wealthier, more selective colleges. While low-income students, as measured by Pell Grant eligibility, make up one-third of the total U.S. undergraduate population, they are woefully underrepresented in the nation’s wealthiest colleges. CollegeNet provides a list of colleges that are most likely to improve social mobility.

    3. Earmark donations for programs that increase access and support for marginalized students.

    Colleges are trying innovative programs to increase access to higher ed and support until graduation. Support admissions initiatives that extend outreach beyond wealthier areas. Earmark your donations to scholarships that fund students whose family income is slightly above Pell Grant eligibility, a neglected population, as this article describes. Fund important-but-expensive opportunities that are not covered by scholarships or financial aid, like summer living expenses or conference fees.

    4. Lobby for more funding for school counselors and public universities.

    Studies show that school counselors have significant impact on a student’s likelihood of attending and completing college. Yet, according to EdWeek, “The average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 482-to-1—nearly double the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.” Public colleges are seeking more out-of-state students as a way to boost tuition revenue, which has limited opportunities for in-state students. These are both results of diminishing financial support from the state. Lobby your state and federal elected officials for more funding for school counselors and public universities.

    5. Actively fight against legacy and donor preference in admissions.

    “I can’t believe Lori Laughlin bribed her daughters’ admissions decisions at USC. Why didn’t she just do it the old-fashioned way by donating a building?” You’ve probably heard this response. But the ugly truth of Operation Varsity Blues is that it shone a bright light on “acceptable” admissions practices that give tremendous advantage to applicants with money and connections. As an alumni or donor, you can use your privilege by relinquishing that privilege. Speak out, like this Vanderbilt alumni, about the inequity at the very core of legacy preferences. As a parent with children going through the process, tell your development connection that you will hold donations while your child is a potential applicant. As an alumni, you can refuse to “make a call” or “write a letter” on behalf of an applicant.

Featured Photo: Muslim American College Scholarship Project by Muslim American Leadership Alliance

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