The Cost of College Admission

When applying for colleges, students are inclined to organize the schools they are interested in by likelihood of acceptance, labeling various institutions on a spectrum ranging from “safeties” to “reaches.” To most applicants, the idea of “reach” schools renders visions of the sprawling brick and green of prestigious academia, high on a hill, a distant dream that serves as a flicker of hope towards optimizing one’s full potential. And yet, “reach” schools are just that– “reaches.” A “reach” school is classified by the student’s likelihood of acceptance into said facility and usually offers the applicant no higher than a 30% chance of getting in. However, “reaches” for some are simple grasps for others, and academics and extracurriculars are not the only factors contributing to one’s likelihood of admissions; such components are puppeteered by the stirrings of our financially-driven society. Despite recent developments to soften the unjust blow of unequal opportunity, financial bearings play an undoubtedly large role in the admissions process.

Children born into a high financial status are able to attend both K-12 and high schools with exceptionally high educational placement statistics, commonly known as Ivy Feeders: schools with steep tuitions, prestigious connections, and an overall graduating class that is statistically more likely to disperse into the Ivy League. Presently, the top private feeder school in the country is Trinity School, a K-12 private school in New York City with annual tuition of over $58,000, which sends 37% of graduates into the Ivy League. 

Such expensive institutions are able to have high success rates because they are able to provide resources deemed unattainable to the majority of students, such as admissions counselors and coaches who help students fine-tune applications and a more concentrated student-to-teacher ratio. Circling back to Trinity School, the institution has a student-to-teacher ratio of 6:1, a shocking number when compared to the national average of 15.3 students per teacher in K-12 public schools. With a larger number of educators, students receive individual attention and thus grow stronger academically. Of course, one’s transcript will not reflect this ratio, and therefore, students who have access to more help are more likely to receive better grades and test scores and be seen as stronger candidates for admission.

With the advantages that schools like Ivy Feeders provide, students are more readily prepared for college than others who were not given the same opportunities. And although 94 out of the 100 top Ivy feeders are private, the problem extends to public schools, given that many charter schools run similar programs in extremely wealthy areas. Thus, admissions into these elite universities often comes down to wealth and access. For example, in an analysis of financial statistics at Brown University, The New York Times reported, “The median family income of a student from Brown is $204,200.” The same report revealed that 19% of students attending Brown are from the top 1%. Additionally, business news organization, Quartz, stated, “At Ivy-plus colleges…more than two-thirds of the students are from rich households.” 

This trend of academic advantages to the wealthy also pertains to the Common Application essay. College essay editors are professionals who charge costly fees to edit and polish students’ essays. Given the expense of these services, this practice is unattainable to the majority of students. 

Similar resources can be found to help students score better on the SAT and ACT. The Princeton Review advertises an SAT prep course that guarantees at least a 1400 on the test with a money back guarantee and includes live teaching, practice tests, and 24/7 on-demand tutoring amongst other resources. However, the course itself costs $2,199 (on sale for $1,899 at the time this article was written). Furthermore, students who can afford to take the test multiple times are often awarded the additional advantage of a higher score due to familiarity with the test’s material and the heightened chances of a more impressive superscore. 

But the problem of financial advantage in college admissions does not begin at a high school level. From the moment a student enters the classroom, their financial standing can factor into their educational development. One kindergartener could have access to an elite private school and possibly an expensive preschool before that. The child could also have access to hired tutors who help them build their fundamentals at a much faster pace than other students. On the contrary, some students cannot afford to go to preschool and have no access to help outside the classroom. Depending on the state and county, public schools vary in condition due to the funding they receive.

An elementary school teacher stated that they have noticed that a contributing factor in a child’s early development is the financial standing of their family. Wealthier families usually have regular work hours and more time and resources to spend on their children. Because of this, they are able to aid them in their studies and broaden their range of experiences at a young age. However, children from lower income households typically have parents who have to work long and often irregular hours to provide for their families. Conversely, these students tend to have a harder time in the earlier stages of educational development. The teacher stated, “They (some of the students with parents who have to work more) are at a disadvantage because they do not have an adult who is able to push academics at home with them…The parents who are having more financial struggles want the best for their kids, and they believe academics are very important, but they’re not able to physically be there because they have to work more.”

Development is also compromised in severe instances of underfunding as seen in cases like Detroit. The lack of funding leaves a noticeable effect on the students as they have little access to arts and athletics programs, school supplies, and even safe classrooms. These conditions make receiving a quality education disproportionately difficult, and the effects are present in data. In an interview with NBC News three years ago, Dustin Walsh, a reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business stated that 90% of eight graders in Detroit public schools are not proficient in math or reading. Education builds upon itself, so logically, the quality of an education a student receives in elementary school affects their development in both middle and high school. Additionally, elementary, middle, and high schools all receive similar public funding within the same jurisdiction; therefore, the gap between economic classes widens and leaves a significant impact on a student’s ability to attend, let alone get into, colleges.

From the Ivy League to fundamental education, the common denominator on every level of the admissions issue is wealth. Whether a student’s dream school is an Ivy or a community college, their financial standing plays a significant role in their entry. Colleges have been trying to break down the barriers of economic divide within admissions by making the SAT and ACT optional or by granting scholarships, but the fact remains: the admissions process can never truly be fair to all applicants because it exists in a society where the wealthy are given such a disproportionate advantage at such a young age.

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