How American Education Favors the Wealthy

Everyone wants their children to succeed, and money is an obvious advantage. But do we have an educational system that deepens economic inequality by favoring the wealthy?

In 2013, I graduated from a top-25 university through hard work and hefty loans. My alma mater Wake Forest was a victim in the now-infamous college admissions scandal.

american education favors wealthy

While enrolled, there was a common belief among the students that not everyone earned their acceptance through merit. So did the college admissions scandal shock me?

Not even a little.

I knew back then what many people learned from Lori Loughlin: there are avenues for wealthy parents to help their children get enrolled in elite colleges.

I guess I’m only shocked by the fact that Americans are shocked by the admissions scandal.

Here’s how our educational system tilts the financial scales towards the wealthy and away from the rest of the population.

Educational Advantages of the Wealthy

Going to a great school doesn’t guarantee financial success, but it does allow access to extraordinary networks and resources.

Wake Forest has more students in the top 1% of income (21.7%) than the bottom 60% (17%). According to a 2017 study, the same can be said for 37 other schools in America, including 5 in the Ivy League.

About 25% of the richest students attend elite colleges, while less than .5% of students from families in the bottom 20% of income achieve the same feat. How can we explain these statistics? Do wealthy children inherently become more capable students?

Let’s consider a couple ways our system favors descendants of the wealthy.

Legacy admissions

A legacy admission is when an applicant is related to a graduate of that college or university. According to a 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed, 42% of private schools and 6% of public schools give weight to legacy status in admissions.

At Harvard, the acceptance rate for legacy students is around 33% (the overall acceptance rate is under 6%).

From the standpoint of the schools, the practice makes sense. Legacy families are more likely to donate to the school. Admissions counselors also admit that legacy students tend to be strong applicants because they know the institution and how to present themselves.

The problem is that if they’re already great students, why should they also get credit for having a relative that’s an alumnus? This double-bonus can prevent similarly qualified first-generation college students from being admitted, which widens the gap of inequality.

Sports and activities

College admissions advisors want to admit well-rounded students who can demonstrate success in areas other than academics. There’s a couple reasons why this favors people with money:

  1. Private/charter schools tend to have more programs than public schools, including sports like water polo, fencing, and sailing.
  2. Less fortunate students can’t pay for sports that require lots of equipment or travel.

The sports mentioned above are typically enjoyed by high-class members of society. This helps these applicants ingratiate themselves with the culture these schools want to embody through having experience with these activities.

It’s also worth noting that less fortunate students can’t get rides to/from practices and games in high school. This only adds to the dynamic of wealthier children having more robust resumes and a greater chance at attending an elite school.

Tutors and coaches

Public schools have thin enough budgets as it is. They simply don’t have the money to get children the extra help they need after school.

When you’re rich, you simply pay for a tutor. This benefit goes far beyond getting homework help, however. Wealthy students have coaches to help them with the SATs and ACTs, and they’re able to take these tests multiple times because the cost isn’t prohibitive.

While these tests are certainly not a requirement, higher scores certainly boost an applicant’s chances of being accepted.

Financial donations

As if the deck wasn’t stacked enough, wealthy parents can always give their students a gentle nudge into elite schools by dishing out some dough.

A Harvard lawsuit revealed that 42.2% of students whose parents donated were accepted over a six-year period. Schools are quick to say that these donations don’t guarantee anything, but that’s not the point.

The problem is that there are situations in which these donations do influence the decision to admit a student or not. If this is happening at Harvard, one of the most selective schools in America, who’s to say this isn’t happening at many other elite institutions that just haven’t been exposed yet?

Do We Have a Problem? If So… Can We Fix It?

Allowing money to override merit in this way is the purest method for exacerbating inequality. The first step to a solution would be to eliminate legacy admissions and financial donations from admission consideration.
The next step could be to continue the trend in test-optional admissions.

Easier said than done.

The big question is this: how can we adopt widespread change across so many different institutions without government intervention? Government regulation is hardly a dream solution, and for good reason.

But without at least the threat of negative financial repercussions for public and private institutions (with incentives to match), the current system will live on as we kick the can down the road.

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All opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of Home at 30 and are in no way affiliated with any other organization or institution. The purpose of this blog is to give general education and information about investing, wealth, careers, and college; It is not intended to be professional advice.

Author: Josh Ramos

Josh attended Wake Forest University and paid a fortune for it. Since then, he’s realized the obstacles that Americans face in moving up on the ladder of wealth. By founding Home at 30, he wants to help students learn the skills necessary for taking the next step on their journey to building wealth.
How American Education Favors the Wealthy was last modified: August 28th, 2019 by Josh Ramos

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