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The Surest Way to Be Admitted to One’s Dream College

By Walt Gardner — November 08, 2017 1 min read

High school seniors are hard at work trying to write an essay to accompany their college applications that will impress admission officers. They’ve been told time and again that their ability to distinguish themselves from others through their essays, grades and test scores is the key. But the truth is that the surest way to be accepted is to have parents who are mega donors (“What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything)” (The New York Times, Nov. 1).

Let’s get real. Colleges and universities are essentially businesses. A recent report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that about half of institutions said an applicant’s “ability to pay” was of at least “some importance” in admissions decisions. I say that’s a gross understatement.

Yes, colleges and universities admit students who can’t pay the full freight or any freight for that matter. But “the grubby secret of American higher education” is that the very rich buy their underachieving children’s way into elite schools with huge, tax-deductible donations,” according to Daniel Golden writing in The Guardian. Golden is the author of The Price of Admission (Crown Publishers, 2006). What really goes on behind closed doors is a closely guarded secret. Rarely, an outsider is allowed access. I’m referring now to Jacques Steinberg, who wrote The Gatekeepers (Viking 2002) after spending nearly a year observing the process at Wesleyan University.

The more selective the school, the more that money counts. I’m not saying that these colleges and universities are corrupt. Instead, I’m saying that they are unduly influenced by money and power in deciding whom they admit. As a result, academic integrity is compromised. Even schools with huge endowments are not exempt from this accusation. Does that mean applicants from rich, famous families are necessarily mediocre? Of course not. But all other things being equal, they will surely be admitted before applicants whose parents have not been generous donors.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.