Hieu (Hugh) Nguyen
Oct 1st, 2013
This essay was assigned to be written from the perspective of a Class matters advocate, and does not necessarily represent the views of the author.
In a month, the first year seminar class conducted a simulation of an admission process, in which students were admissions officers and tried to bring three applicants to The College’s campus out of 15 applications. Among the three enrolled students, there was one student who would pay the costs in full (Caitlin Quinn), one student who would pay very little ($3933, Daniel Juberi), and one whose amount of expected contribution would be in the middle ($43276, Jazmine Hope-Martin)1. These differences in the amount of money to pay for The College made the the entering class seem socioeconomically diverse, however, the results were only due to chance and the balance in wealth is not likely to happen again in the future. Because certain people happened to enroll and others happened to decline, we ended up with class diversity but if we use the same system again, the results will be worse. So, though the admissions process was legal, the outcome neither reflected a best possible entering class nor promoted equal education. The two main reasons are the rating system and the low budget. The rating system are unfair for students with low socioeconomic status because many aspects that the system gives points to are affected by social class; the low budget forced our admissions team to hesitate when admitting low income students.
Let’s begin with the holes in our rating system. The rating system give points to students based on these four factors: academics, extra-curricular activities, legacy, and diversity. At first glance, before the F-round, it appeared that low-income students and wealthy students were on an equal standing, as the one who has higher total scores than others will be admitted, regardless of his/her social class. However, if we give it more insightful look into it, it appears that academics and extracurricular activities are deeply affected by class.
The participants of the simulation rated each applicant’s academic strength based on many factors. Some major factors were: standardized scores, grades, course curriculum, and (to some applicants) class rank. Each of these components is affected by socio-economic class to some degree. In term of standardized scores, rich kids score higher than underprivileged students, because the richer ones have more resources to prepare for the tests. With money, affluent parents can easily pay SAT prep courses or hire SAT tutors for their kids. In her article named “SAT scores and family income” in the New York Times, Catherine Rampell used College Board’s SAT scores in 2009 to analyze the relationship between SAT scores and family income. The charts imply that the higher the income of a family is, the higher SAT score its kid can get. The author observes that “On every test section, moving up an income category (the difference between two closest income levels is $10000) was associated with an average score boost of over 12 points.”2 Thus, the difference in total SAT score between a student whose family earn $20,000 a year and another one whose family earn more than $200,000 a year is 360 points – a number that can change the whole impression of an admissions officer toward a student’s academic strength. In addition, according to the “Advantage” graph from the infographic “Affluent Students Have an Advantage and the Gap is Widening”3, one can see only 26 percent of the poorest students who graduated college have above-average test scores, while the richest kids whose scores are below average (30 percent of the richest kids) still get college degrees. These studies suggest that if there are two students in two opposite social classes who have the same exact SAT scores, the one who is in lower class has shown more determination and hard works in preparing for the SAT as he has less resources than the more privileged one. Another case is when two students have slightly different SAT scores and the rest of their academics are the same, it does not necessarily means the one that has higher score is academically better. However, due to our numerical rating system, the kid who has higher SAT score will surely have higher rating in academics.
Others main factors that determine one’s academic strength can also be altered by social class as well. For example, take a look at the grades of applicants from private school and public school. Private schools have individualized attentions, which means students have more opportunities to spend time one-on-one with teachers, therefore they tend to get higher grades than those who in public schools. One evidence for this statement is Gamoran’s research named “ Student Achievement in Public Magnet, Public Comprehensive, and Private City High Schools”. The data in Table 4 shows that students attending nonreligious private high schools score higher than those in public comprehensive schools and in public magnet schools in all these four subjects: math, science, reading, and social studies4. Speaking of rigorosity of one’s curriculum, AP and honors courses vary from each school, but generally a student in a higher socioeconomic class will have a more rigorous course load. This is shown in Joshua Klugman’s research named “How Resource Inequalities Among High Schools Reproduce Class Advantages in College Destinations.” He measured families’ socioeconomic status (SES) based on parents’ education levels, jobs, and family annual incomes when students were in tenth grade. One of the date shows that “[a] standard deviation increase in SES increases AP subject-taking by .16 courses” and “[s]chools’ AP subjects…have significant benefits for students’ chances of enrolling in more selective colleges (Model 2A)”5. Thus, from all of the above, wealthy kids obviously receive higher academic ratings than those low-incomers who are actually on the same academic level with them, but that fact does not show on the rating system.
Not only heavily correlating to academics and test scores, class also deeply influences one’s extra-curricular activities. Wealthy families invest in arts, music lessons, sports, and travel for their kids,. They use money to shape their kids as ideal applicants for colleges. In Klugman’s research “How Resource Inequalities Among High Schools Reproduce Class Advantages in College Destinations,” the data indicate that a richer family will have children with more extracurricular activities6. He also shows that “Students who attend private schools have higher levels of extracurricular activities”7. Hence, students whose families are in higher socio-economic class have great advantages in extra-curricular activities. Their parents pay money for their music and dance lessons, guide them in playing sports at a young age, and pay travel fees for them to go to African or South American countries to help the local people (which is dubious, as some students take the trip just to put it on their resumes). The seminar’s simulation applicant files help to partly prove that notion. It reveals in Angelica Parker’s letter of recommendation from her guidance counselor that her parents had gotten involved to help her become a decent swimmer. They transferred her to the new school to “give her an opportunity to swim on a varsity team while still in grade school”8. Her family is wealthy, and if her mother had not had a serious disease then Angelica would not have applied for financial aid. If Angelica had not been transferred back to the school she is currently attending by her parents, she would have stayed in the local high school which would never leave her enough time for outside activities and Angelica’s name would not have appeared on the Athletic Director’s mail to the Dean of Admissions9.
Besides affecting criteria like academic and extra-curricular activities, socio-economic issues also affect low-income students in various other ways. In his article “Low-Income Students and the Socioeconomic Composition of Public High Schools”, Robert Crosnoe shows that “low-income students in public schools… have more psychological problems when the percentage of middle and high-income families increase in their high school”.10 Therefore, it is undeniable to say that students in lower class have weaker profiles than those in higher classes. Thus, low income students are often some steps behind wealthy kids when they apply to selective colleges. Let’s take a look at the students who were ranked from tenth to fifteenth in the Decision Day Simulation Data11. Each of them, except Benjamin Rosen whose financial need is average ($21,590), needs more than $40,000 a year. Their families are either in low or low-middle class and they have the worst grand total admissions rankings. Hence, even when the F-round was not started yet, the low-income applicants already had less chance of getting in than the privileged ones, because during the time in high school, they had less resources to excel in academics, to prepare for standardized scores, and to select the best fitted extracurricular activities.
But perhaps what prevents students with socioeconomic disadvantages from being admitted to colleges is the lack of budget. In his book “Creating a class”, Stevens reports the way The College categorize students based on their financial needs. He wrote that “Apps for which the answer to the aid question was no were described colloquially as “free”, because their acceptance would not “cost” the College any of its financial aid budget. Those who would need a lot of financial aid to be able to attend the College often were colloquial described as “expensive” or “needy”.”12 In the simulation, the ability of paying college costs is an indispensable part of the admissions process. The purpose of F-round is to use Net Price Calculator to calculate each student’s expected family contribution and the money Trinity College would have to spend on each student. Due to limited budget ($70,000), every admissions officer looked for students who had high grand admissions total ratings and were able to pay in full first. Students whose families donate money to Trinity were given preferences. Caitlin Quinn is an epitome. It is undoubted that her grand total score is the best, but as stated before in previous paragraphs, her superior socioeconomic status contributed a lot to her grand total score. But there was another reason that is no less important that helped her to be the first nominated applicant. It was the fact that her name appeared on the Vice President of Development’s letter to the Dean as her family have been “a very important financial supporter of our institution.”13 In order to spend the least budget money possible on the first person to admit, every one in the admissions team agreed to admit her right away. Another paradigm is Erika Sparks. Her admissions score was not good enough to be nominated for the first and second time, however due to her low financial need (only $1225), she was accepted in the third attempt, also with a perfect vote 15-0. If it was not due to the poor budget, the first three admitted applicants should have been Caitlin Quinn, Rosa Martinez, and Angelica Parker, as they have the highest grand total ratings and they would meet the socioeconomically diverse goal (one pays in full, one pays very little, and one pays somewhere in the middle). Unfortunately, if the admissions team decided to do so, the $70000 budget would in no way could meet both Rosa and Angelica’s financial needs. Luckily, the final results turned out to be a little bit balance in term of social class, as Caitlin would pay in full, Daniel would pay a little and Jazmine would pay approximately two-third of the total costs. But as mentioned in the introduction, that is not likely to happen again in the future if the same rating system and same amount of budget are used. If the first three admitted people decided to enroll, the entering class would not have been socioeconomically diverse, as there would be no one in a low social class.
One thing to remember, though, is that the process was certainly legal, because it did not violate any rule about higher education. The rating system did not give any extra point for someone who was in a low social class. If the admissions team had automatically awarded points to low income students, the process would have been illegal because it would be similar to the case Grutter v. Bollinger14 in which University of Michigan automatically gave 20 points for minorities. Hence, the process was legal.
In a nutshell, from all of the reasons above, though the admissions and financial aid process was legal, it is undeniable that the outcome did neither reflect the best possible entering class nor promote equal educational opportunities, due to the rating system and the budget. As long as money can affect at least one of the factors that admission officers use to determine the brightest applicants, then higher education cannot be considered as an equalizer. To improve this, some changes are needed to be made. To minimize the budget problem, The College needs to expand its funding for financial aid. There are some ways to do it, like contacting alumni and donors more frequently to get more money from them, and asking the states to provide more federal aid money for US citizens applicants. To fix the rating system problem, social class must be taken into account, but not by giving a low income student some numerical points as it would be illegal. The best way is to abandon the whole rating system and set up a new, completely holistic approach by not giving any points at all for any students and thus there will be no grand total admissions ranking. Thirdly, The College should incorporate with some programs that help highly achieving, disadvantaged students to apply for selective colleges (i.e.: QuestBrigde). Thus, it is reasonable to hope for a future where access to education is equal for everyone. But for now, as the simulation showed, an equal access to colleges only exists in theories.
1Decision Day, Color and Money Admissions Simulation Data, Trinity College, Fall 2013, http://commons.trincoll.edu/colorandmoney.
2Catherine Rampell, “SAT Scores and Family Income,” Economix Blog, August 27, 2009, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/sat-scores-and-family-income/.
3The New York Times, “Affluent Students Have an Advantage,” New York Times, December 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/12/22/education/Affluent-Students-Have-an-Advantage-and-the-Gap-Is-Widening.html.
4Adam Gamoran, “Student Achievement in Public Magnet, Public Comprehensive, and Private City High Schools,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 18, no. 1 (March 20, 1996): 1–18, doi:10.3102/01623737018001001.
5Joshua Klugman, “How Resource Inequalities Among High Schools Reproduce Class Advantages in College Destinations,” Research in Higher Education 53, no. 8 (December 1, 2012): 803–830, doi:10.1007/s11162-012-9261-8, pg. 820.
6Ibid, table 2.
7Ibid, pg. 816.
8Angelica Parker, Simulation Applicant Files, Color & Money seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2013, http://commons.trincoll.edu/colorandmoney.
9Correspondence from Dean of Admissions (from simulation), Color & Money seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2013, http://commons.trincoll.edu/colorandmoney.
10Robert Crosnoe, “Low-Income Students and the Socioeconomic Composition of Public High Schools,” American Sociological Review 74, no. 5 (October 1, 2009): 709–730, doi:10.1177/000312240907400502.
11Decision Day, Color and Money Admissions Simulation Data, Trinity College, Fall 2013, http://commons.trincoll.edu/colorandmoney.
12Stevens, Creating a Class. pg. 197.
13Correspondence from Dean of Admissions (from simulation), Color & Money seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2013, http://commons.trincoll.edu/colorandmoney
14 Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 US 306 (Supreme Court 2003).