Admissions Scandal Highlights Wealth Disparities at Amherst

Colleges and universities across the country were embroiled in scandal on March 12 when federal prosecutors disclosed charges against more than 50 people involved in a conspiracy to bribe college officials and inflate students’ test scores. Wealthy, upper-class parents were revealed to have paid anywhere from $500,000 to $6.5 million to William “Rick” Singer, who operated two firms involved in the scheme, to guarantee their children’s admissions into top schools including USC, Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Georgetown. The FBI investigation is known as Operation Varsity Blues and is the largest case of its kind to be pursued by the Justice Department.

Many of the parents paid to have their child take college entrance exams with a proctor who would correct the test as they went along; others paid to have their child recruited by coaches by falsifying their athletic qualifications. The scandal has since caused a national reckoning with socioeconomic privilege and the flaws of admissions to institutions of higher education. Over the next month, The Student will examine the various factors affecting admissions across the nation and at Amherst specifically. The four-part series will investigate athletics, legacy admissions and inclusion. This week, we begin by framing the conversation around admissions.

Amherst College is one of 104 institutions of higher education in the nation to practice need-blind admissions policies, meaning that a student’s financial need is not considered when making admissions decisions. Of those 104 institutions, about half of them — including Amherst — claim to meet full demonstrated financial need.

According to the Office of Financial Aid’s website, over 60 percent of students receive financial aid, with the total grant money awarded adding to $56 million. The average financial aid package amounted to $55,000, with the cost of attendance at the college for the 2018-2019 school year totaling at $76,654.

The college also removed loans from all financial aid packages in 2007, replacing them with grant money. In the class of 2018, 70 percent of students graduated without student loan debt.

Though the number of students receiving aid represents more than half of the student body, lower-income students represent a small portion of the population. The college’s most recent Report to Secondary Schools detailing demographics for the class of 2021 shows that only 20 percent of the class are Pell Grant eligible, an indicator of low family income. Eleven percent of the class of 2021 identified as first-generation college students.

Wealth disparities across the student body are even starker. According to a 2017 report published in The New York Times by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, 20 percent of students at Amherst hail from the top one percent of the income bracket, meaning that their families make over $630,000 per year. Meanwhile, 24 percent come from the bottom 60 percent of the income bracket, with their families bringing in less than $65,000 per year.

The same report also showed that 60 percent of students come from families at the top 20 percent of the income bracket, with a mere four percent of students coming from families at the bottom 20 percent of the income bracket.

Last year, the Amherst First-Gen Association signed an open letter asking the college to “make all internally written admissions policies and data about legacy treatment public and to charge a joint committee of students, alumni, and administrators to re-evaluate its use.” The letter cited a nine-year study of the top 100 universities that found no statistically significant evidence of legacy admissions impacting total alumni donations.

“This campaign is not about whether or not legacy applicants like our future children deserve their place in their respective universities,” the letter stated. “It is about ensuring that all students have equal footing in the admissions process regardless of whether or not their parents attended a certain university.”

Leah Gordon, professor of education studies, noted that the immense value placed on admissions letters for elite institutions highlights the growing inequalities that stratify higher education.

“I think the story reminds us of the economic and cultural capital that elite higher education produces for those lucky enough to make it through, and the premium put on that kind of capital in an era of growing economic inequality, rising achievement gaps that we know start before kindergarten and declining state support for higher education,” she said.

For many students, particularly those who identify as first-generation and low-income, Varsity Blues only magnified issues that already seemed apparent in their everyday lives.

The scandal wasn’t surprising at all for diversity intern Rachel Kang ’21. She referenced a recent event at the college with Anthony “Tony” Jack ’07, Harvard professor of education and author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”

“Tony Jack was talking about how this is a really, really small part of getting in,” Kang said. “The front end is the network that helps you get in — what kinds of extracurriculars you are in, what people you know in high school, which is linked with what resourceful kids with rich parents do you know, who did you grow up with.” All of these networks, she said, provide opportunities that are not granted as often to people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“This kind of admissions scandal is happening behind the media scandal and will continue to happen, … and Amherst can’t be isolated from that,” she added.

Elinton Lee ’20, who identifies as low-income, also found the scandal unsurprising, emphasizing the vast amount of resources wealthy students have to inflate their college applications.

“It’s so annoying that [those involved in the scandal] have all the opportunity in the world,” he said. “They literally have all of the money, the ability to have enough resources, to go to great high schools, they can put whatever they want on their resume, and they still have to give bribes to get into these colleges.”

Maya Hossain ’21, another diversity intern, noted that outrageous scandals like Varsity Blues allows those in privileged positions to undermine their complicity in the system.

“Everyone knows they have some privilege — it’s kind of built into the definition of it, but it goes back to these legal ways of cheating,” she said, referring to assets like legacy admissions and private tutoring, among others, that wealthy students take advantage of during the college application process. “It’s hard to understand that when it doesn’t seem like cheating. Because it’s legal, because everyone’s doing it, because it’s almost encouraged. With this scandal, it’s really easy to point at it and say ‘that’s not me, that’s not my family, we did it in all of the ways we had to.’”

Eden Charles ’19, president of the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color, was similarly unsurprised when she heard about the scandal over spring break. “I think it’s a fact of the way America is and how stratified it is socioeconomically that people with privilege will do things to keep their family privileged,” Charles said. “Colleges obviously need donations and funding; they have people who want to go there. I don’t think the athletics piece is that surprising either.”

At the same time Varsity Blues details the extraordinary pursuit of the wealthy to gain entry into elite universities, Gordon added that this same pursuit appears justified for low-income students. Chetty’s report describes that while an affluent graduate of an Ivy-plus school — a consortium including all eight Ivy League Schools plus Duke, MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago — ends up in the 80th percentile of the income bracket, low-income graduates of the same schools fall within the 75th percentile, nearly on par with that of their wealthy counterparts.

“If you think about some of the work by Raj Chetty, especially for many less affluent students, the aspiration to get into an elite college is completely rational,” Gordon said. “We know that the diversity of elite colleges is important because we have pretty good evidence that elite colleges are often reliant producers of social mobility for the small number of low-income students who are lucky enough to get there.”

The number of low-income students at elite schools, however, remains small. Because of these schools’ selectivity, Gordon cautioned against examining Varsity Blues exclusively through the lens of these institutions. Instead, she found that the issues permeating the rest of the higher education landscape hold more pertinence.

Citing the work of Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who researches the barriers in place for low-income students at public universities and community colleges, Gordon said that “the scandal is obscuring much of the inequality and experiences of higher education between elite institutions featured in these scandals and the institutions that the vast majority of American post-secondary students attend, which are not residential, where students, as they do throughout the higher education landscape, are struggling with out-of-control costs and crippling debt and where many students are not traditional college age and are balancing work, family and educational commitments.”

“It’s not an either-or, it’s just that we need to think about how to effectively and fairly diversify elite institutions at the same time that we also think about what is best for students in the full range of higher education institutions that they attend in the United States,” Gordon added.

This is the first of a four-part series examining admissions at Amherst.

Part two — “College Admissions Scandal Provokes Questions About Athletics”

Part three — “Legacy Admissions Scrutinized in Wake of Varsity Blues”

Part four — “Low-Income Students’ Experiences Marked by Alienation”