College admissions scandal reveals vast inequalities in higher education

Illustration of hands exchanging a diploma for money
Samantha Patten/Staff

An overlooked lesson of the ongoing “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal is that when it comes to affordability and transparency, our nation’s higher education system is alarmingly separate and unequal. Rich parents — including famous actors, business moguls and doctors — paid a “fixer” anywhere from $750,000 to $6.5 million to game the system by inflating their children’s SAT scores and bribing college coaches to list their kids as athletes. It’s easy to understand the unfairness of bribing someone to get your child admitted to a prestigious school.

But far more damaging is how the system is tilted in favor of the rich and in favor of families with a history of attending college — while for those with low to moderate incomes or who are members of underrepresented minority groups, the aid process is a maze of confusion and contradiction. This systemic dysfunction belies our long-held belief that U.S. higher education is built on meritocracy and social mobility, while doing serious damage to our nation’s economy and our ability to compete in the global marketplace of the future.

Simply put, money gets you access where merit does not.

The UC system includes more than 238,000 students and takes great pride in being ranked among the best in the world as well as attracting and educating the best and brightest “from all backgrounds, ethnicities and incomes,” noting that more than 40 percent of UC students come from low-income families. But a system that tends to favor those with means threatens those commendable ideals. It’s a serious challenge to the UC and to institutions of higher learning nationwide.

Paying money to get your child admitted to an institution is not against the rules, and legacy admissions give preference to legacy applicants. Some schools grant the preference only to children of alumni, while others extend it to siblings, nephews, nieces and grandchildren (these students tend to be wealthier and whiter on average). While legacies are employed at almost three-quarters of selective research universities and virtually all elite liberal arts colleges, the practice is virtually unheard of in other countries, and tuition costs are much lower.

For students like myself — the son of working-class parents from Somerville, a suburb of Boston — and those we advise at uAspire, the financial aid system fails to provide sufficient information and resources. The initial challenge comes from the FAFSA used by the federal government and schools to determine aid eligibility. Its accurate completion is critical for those needing grants and scholarships to pay for school, but annually, many who are eligible for aid fail to complete the form because of its complexity, and many who do complete it are flagged for a tedious “verification” process.

If students do overcome the FAFSA hurdle, they face another one before even setting foot on a college campus: correctly understanding how much aid they’re being offered. Financial aid award letters appear simple, but that’s far from the truth. A report last year by uAspire and New America analyzed thousands of such letters and found not only that most aid packages were insufficient in covering the cost of college for many students, but also that award letters detailing this information were rife with confusing terminology, often omitted the full cost of attendance and failed to differentiate types of aid (grants and scholarships versus loans). Many letters also contained inconsistent bottom-line calculations of the total cost of attendance.

That brings us to possibly the biggest hurdle of them all: affordability. Our study with New America found that students receiving Pell Grants are still left with a significant gap — an average of nearly $12,000 per student. This gap persisted even when students made cost-saving decisions about where to attend (public versus private) or where to live (at home versus on campus). Today, 44.7 million Americans hold a total of $1.56 trillion in student loan debt. Multiple surveys in recent years have revealed that younger Americans are putting off spending on major life events such as buying a home, starting a business and even getting married because of student loan debt.

This affordability gap is key to the inequities in our higher education system. But the fact that this is how things have worked doesn’t mean we can’t make student-centered improvements to the system. There is consensus on a number of basic reforms, like simplifying the FAFSA and increasing Pell Grant funding, which for decades has failed to keep pace with inflation. Need-based aid is critical to low-income and middle-income students’ ability to attend college and obtain postsecondary degrees.

And the state of California is providing an example of the leadership necessary to overcome the inequities in our higher education system caused by the affordability crisis. Through the passage of the state’s 2019-20 budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California State Legislature made deep investments in college affordability. Among other things, these investments included expanding access to aid through the state’s Cal Grant program as well as targeted investments to address basic needs insecurity among students enrolled in California’s public colleges and universities. Allocation of resources such as these are desperately needed reforms that will provide lasting change to a system that is a key rung in the ladder of upward mobility.

While business and media stars garnered the headlines in this scandal, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger scandal — that access to our nation’s higher education system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. There are steps we can take to better level the playing field, but we must act quickly and decisively. The time is now; otherwise, we should just admit what is plain to see — our higher education system is separate and unequal.

Bob Giannino is CEO of uAspire, a national nonprofit that operates in the Bay Area and is focused on the issue of college affordability. Like many of the students uAspire serves, he is the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.