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Credit: Sydney Judge

There are three ways to get into elite United States colleges and universities: the front door, the side door, and the back door. The front door admits students through the process most of us expect yet dread with college admissions: a slew of application essays, FAFSA documents, and standardized tests. Students who enter college through the front door are — at least in theory — judged on their merit and what they can add to a campus.

Acceptance into college via the back door, only available to exceptionally wealthy individuals, requires million-dollar-plus donations to universities. While legal, students admitted to colleges through this process are largely successful due to their family’s monetary contributions to a school rather than their merit.

The side door — revealed from Operation Varsity Blues, a national investigation into illegal admissions processes — enabled rich families to cheat and bribe their kids into college. A 204-page affidavit from the FBI demonstrated that wealthy parents — including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — paid to have SAT and ACT proctors change test results, photoshop pictures of their children into extracurricular activities they didn’t participate in, fabricate transcripts, lie about disabilities to gain accommodations for standardized tests, and bribe college athletic directors and coaches to recruit non-students as athletes. All told, parents paid anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee admissions into elite schools such as Yale, the University of Southern California, and Stanford.

Despite the clear ethical issues with the side- and back-door admissions process, colleges and universities have failed to adequately address the underlying problems. The few actions taken by colleges such as the University of Southern California and the University of California system — such as clear documentation and improved verification protocols — offer mere bandaid solutions. 

Fixing the problems revealed from Operation Varsity Blues requires that universities address the root causes of wealth and stress that corrupt the college admissions process. Colleges and universities, therefore, must return to an admissions system that accepts students based on merit and not wealth. Schools should not cease to accept donations from alumni — endowments help create new buildings, fund extracurricular programs, and provide financial aid to low-income students. Wealth, however, can no longer play as important a role in admissions as it currently does.

To accomplish this, schools must examine processes such as early decision and standardized testing. For example, studies show that wealthy individuals score better on standardized tests than those of lower socioeconomic status. This, however, does not necessitate an abolishment of the tests or a critique of wealthy families for acting within the confines of the college admissions system. Instead, the onus rests on colleges and universities to remain test-optional to ensure that wealth does not play as prevalent a role as it currently does in admissions. 

Early decision applications exist as another disadvantage in the admissions process as many low-income students lack the financial flexibility to apply during those deadlines. Colleges and universities must structurally change the system by lowering the number of students accepted during early decision periods. 

Operation Varsity Blues also exposed the obsession with attending elite institutions that grips much of our nation. Often, the stress to attend top-tier universities originates from parents. For instance, parents rather than the students themselves used the college admissions scandal to guarantee admissions. A report that discusses how a focus on academic achievement leads to ethical lapses poignantly states that “many parents … seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.”  Students, however, also must take personal responsibility to lower the amount of stress attached to the college admissions process. 

All told, colleges and universities have neglected to substantively solve the structural problems of wealth and stress that have corrupted the admissions process. It’s time to change and ensure that colleges and universities equitably open up all doors for students.

DANIEL GUREVITCH is a College first year studying political science and philosophy from Wynnewood, Pa. His email is dgure@sas.upenn.edu.

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