May 21, 2019

Varsity Blues is the tip of the iceberg

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It's not just cheaters: From legacy privileges to special testing exemptions to private tutors and other professional services, it's increasingly clear that America's selective college admissions system has a problem.

Why it matters: These are assaults on equality of opportunity, which American politicians have preached for generations.

  • 4.2% of students at wealthier public schools have designations for extra time during tests, the WSJ reported today.
  • At poorer schools, it's only 1.6%.
  • White students disproportionately benefit: 64% of special designations go to them, while they're less than half of public school enrollment.

The big picture: College admissions have become ruthlessly competitive, and the existing rules allow people to buy advantages without breaking a single rule.

  • "Public high schools decide which students get a special designation like a 504 that puts them in line for more time."
  • "Typically, a medical professional must assess a student and decide he or she has some condition such as anxiety or attention problems."
  • "In affluent communities, parents are more likely to know this option exists, and can pay for an outside evaluation if the school won’t."
  • "Many poorer families can’t afford such testing even if they are aware of the process."

What's next: The College Board is rolling out an "adversity score" to give socioeconomic and environmental context for test scores.

  • And Operation Varsity Blues is still unfolding, showcasing the number of elite parents willing to pay to get their kids through the side door.

The bottom line: Nothing will, or should, prevent a parent from doing the absolute best for their child.

  • But it's increasingly hard to square the idea of meritocracy with a system that consistently conveys structural advantages on those born into wealth and social connections.
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