Getting Serious About Higher Education Inequality

In the wake of the rampant, widespread cheating uncovered in last week’s college admissions scandal, there’s been a renewed focus on the different admissions standards that money can buy. This has been a well-documented problem for years, but it seems like the scale of this latest scandal is sparking some new proposals to tackle this issue head-on.

On Wednesday, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) announced his office was working on legislation to eliminate tax benefits for individuals who donate to a university before or during their child’s admission to that institution. Speaking about what inspired him to go after these deductions, Wyden stated “While the prosecutor attempted to distinguish these crimes from payoffs in the form of buildings or stadiums to secure access for the undeserving, it is all part of the same corrupt system.”

This is one of many proposals that could help ensure fair access to higher education, and without knowing the language of the bill, it’s hard to say whether this specific plan is the right one. But we applaud the Senator’s efforts to highlight the link between wealth and admissions, and his search for an actionable solution.

The individuals charged in this scandal were accused of bribing sports coaches and standardized test proctors to get their children admitted to these schools. But Wyden echoes a point that our Chair, Morris Pearl, pointed out last week: there’s really only one substantive difference between bribing a couple officials and donating millions of dollars to a university in an unspoken agreement that it will ensure your child admission – whereas one is definitely illegal, the other allows individuals to deduct it as a legal, charitable donation.

This could help explain why nearly 1 in 4 students from the top 1% attend the most elite universities in the United States – by contrast, only 0.05% of students from the bottom 20% attend those same universities. Several of the universities involved in the scandal, including Yale, Georgetown, and Wake Forest, enroll more students from the top 1% than from the entire bottom 60% of incomes, according to a damning New York Times analysis in 2017.

These are mind-blowing numbers, and even factoring in the advantages that wealthy children have over those in the lowest income brackets such as access to private tutors and early childhood education, it beggars belief to claim this is the outcome of a true meritocracy.

Donating to our nation’s great universities is not, in itself, a bad thing, and charitable contributions help fund critical research, scholarships, and opportunities that make our higher education system the best in the world.

But we also have to reckon with the fact that our current system allows the wealthiest individuals to leverage their wealth in unfair and unequal ways, and we are doing a great disservice to ourselves as a country if we miss out on the chance to elevate the best and brightest among us simply because they don’t come from money.

Untangling wealth from access is a huge challenge, and one proposal is certainly not going to fix it completely. Changing the narrative around wealth and higher education by encouraging a robust, thorough dialogue that sparks an abundance of proposals, however, seems like a good first step. We are grateful to the Senator for bringing much-needed attention to this issue, and are eager to see where this conversation can take us.

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