A systemic failure: It’s time to stop perpetuating elitism in higher education

NATIONAL ISSUES: The college admissions scam was just another instance of oppression in education. Universities must fight harder to make education equitable.

Students in a classroom taking the SAT. One student is asleep with a bag of money on his desk
Emily Bi/Staff

Many members of the UC Berkeley community and beyond were shocked by details of a nationwide college admissions scandal that recently came to light. But to others, the news was just another instance of elitism and oppression in higher education.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice exposed the largest known college admissions bribery scheme in United States history. Among the 50 individuals implicated was Canadian businessman David Sidoo, who allegedly paid a test-taker to take the SAT for his son, a UC Berkeley alumnus. And while the actions brought to light by this investigation are illegal, this scam is symptomatic of a much larger problem of inequity in academia and education — an issue that institutions, administrators and legislators around the country must actively work to eliminate.

The nation’s wealthiest walk into the world of college admissions already several miles ahead of the rest of the population. A study of 38 colleges, including five Ivy League schools, found there to be more students enrolled from the top 1 percent of the United States than the entire bottom 60 percent. And alarmingly, 4 in 10 students from the top 0.1 percent attend “elite” colleges. Prestigious universities must stop perpetuating this elitism. College degrees are one of the few tools that can grant individuals a pathway out of poverty, and this cycle of accepting wealthy students only serves to reinforce wealth disparity in the country.

Students from low-income or marginalized communities have long been disadvantaged by legal — but completely unfair — practices such as legacy consideration. A 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed found that nearly 42 percent of private institutions use legacy in their admissions processes. This practice, no matter its intention, favors families of alumni with wealth and influence. The Students For Fair Admissions concluded that from 2009-2015, legacy applicants to Harvard University were accepted at a rate of nearly 34 percent, while the regular acceptance was 5.9 percent. Universities exist to uplift students by providing them with an education — and this mission is diminished when colleges prioritize money over equity.

It is time for every institution of learning to acknowledge the role that wealth plays in determining quality of life. From the beginning, individuals who come from affluent backgrounds are at an advantage — with access to better K-12 education, academic tutors, college counselors, private high schools and SAT preparatory courses. These are privileges that many take for granted, but they are indicative of a system that works against the people who need it most. No one person is to blame for the college admissions scandal that was recently exposed — it was a systemic failure, and everyone complicit in this system must recognize and own up to their involvement.

So stop blaming affirmative action — it isn’t the problem. In fact, it’s part of a holistic solution. At a time when wealthy families are literally bypassing rules to grant their children admission to prestigious colleges, university officials and administrators must work harder to ensure that individuals from underserved communities are a priority. At UC Berkeley, this means allocating funding toward student-run recruitment and retention centers. Campus administrators cannot hide behind UC Berkeley’s history of activism and diversity — they must join students in the fight to make education accessible.

It shouldn’t take a national scandal to bring attention to a problem that marginalized students have known all along.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.