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Cornelius Range V
Plead the Fifth

Credit: Cornelius Range

Earlier this semester, Penn President Amy Gutmann stood before the incoming Class of 2015 and declared them to be the “brightest and most talented group” ever accepted into the University. If SAT scores are any indication of “talent and brightness” then her claim is certainly not without truth. Penn’s competitive admissions process has dictated an upward trend of SAT scores for each incoming class for at least the last five years and probably dating much further. However, what if SAT scores are less a reflection of talent and academic prowess and more so an indicator of wealth? In a country dubbed the “land of equal opportunity,” can students buy their way into college?

An article published by The Daily Pennsylvanian last week took note of the ever-widening divide between average SAT scores for low income and wealthy applicants. Conforming with this trend, Penn students averaged more than 650 points higher than the national average this year with that figure apparently trending upward. As Dean of Admissions Eric Furda noted, lower income students tend to yield lower scores because they do not have the same access to resources and education as higher-income students.

This narrative runs beyond the SAT, however. An article published earlier this year by The New York Times marked the rise of college application consulting agencies like Think Tank Learning and Best Education, which promise their clients admission into the most selective universities in the United States as part of a package that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. These firms train students for standardized tests like the SAT, help students navigate the essay writing process and even pick out extracurricular activities and internships. ThinkTank Learning’s founder Steve Ma, a former Wall Street analyst, compared the college admissions process to genetic engineering, remarking that “we make unnatural stuff happen.”

We often forget that an admission letter to a university of Penn’s caliber is the equivalent of finding a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The resources at our disposal here, like Career Services department and PennLink, give us a great opportunity to succeed. Tuition over the cost of four years might approximate over $200,000 in total, but I’d venture to guess that overall Penn is a solid investment. Naturally then it makes sense for parents to pay tens of thousands of dollars to make their children more competitive applicants. However, what about those students that can’t afford the services of ThinkTank Learning or to a greater extent Kaplan prep courses for the SAT?

We could rationalize the extreme disparity between the average Penn student’s SAT score and the national average by concluding simply that students accepted to Penn are among the brightest and most talented students in the country. Or conversely, we could argue that students whose scores hover around the national average didn’t work hard enough or that they just weren’t as talented. However, even if both of these arguments contain elements of truth, they fail to address a larger phenomena which manifests itself in the college admissions process. They ignore the implications borne out of this country’s ever-increasing wealth divide; they ignore the fact that the college admissions process is increasingly becoming an institutional mechanism to monopolize wealth and power by a concentrated few.

I’ll let you decide for yourself whether universities should abandon standardized tests as part of the college admissions process or if it is ethical for firms like ThinkTank Learning to make profits essentially by exacerbating the disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest Americans. However, if we cannot find a way to bring the national averages for the SAT closer to those of Penn students then someday historians will look back on this time — in which it is plausible for a politician to propose eliminating the Department of Education before considering the elimination of tax cuts for corporate CEOs who make exponentially more than the average wage earner — and wonder if this was the era in which the ideals of democracy were finally vanquished by the greed fostered by capitalism, in which the dream of “equal opportunity” became a dream deferred and “class warfare” became nothing more than a massacre.

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