Rich student, poor student in the college admissions game

Access to higher education has long been disproportionately afforded the affluent end of the socioeconomic ladder. But this was the year that was supposed to change.

Like many incoming high school seniors, I’m currently navigating the hectic college application process. I’m hunting for schools, writing my essays and figuring out which extracurricular activities might bolster my chances of being accepted. To help me through this process, my family hired a private counselor. This person has guided me, helped me identify the weaknesses in my resume, and, perhaps most importantly, reassured me that I’m doing what I need to do to be seen as a strong candidate.

Applying for schools has probably been the most mentally taxing thing I’ve had to go through in my life. And the extra help I’ve received has been a huge stress relief. Frankly, I see myself getting such a leg up on many of my peers that I found the experience shocking.

Access to higher education has long been disproportionately afforded the affluent end of the socioeconomic ladder. But this was the year that was supposed to change.

In an attempt to make admissions more equitable, colleges across America went test-optional for the high school graduating classes of 2021 and 2022, meaning that students would no longer need to submit their SAT or ACT scores. Some schools, such as the UC and CSU systems, went further by eliminating the option to submit standardized test scores altogether.

This was billed as an attempt to make the application process fairer. Its intention was noble. But the decreased emphasis on standardized testing didn’t get rid of the classism that is intertwined with American college admissions.

Yes, getting rid of standardized testing effectively nullified some of the advantages of affluent students, such as test prep classes. However, a student’s application now comes down to grade-point-average, extracurriculars and essays. Factoring in grade inflation, a practice in which students receive higher grades than they strictly deserve, and the dwindling practice of class rankings, colleges essentially took one step forward and one step back.

Students with families that can afford to pay for private schools have a better chance of getting a high GPA. Grade inflation is three times more likely to occur in private schools than in public schools, according to a study conducted by Michael Hurwitz, senior director of the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. The same study found that suburban public high schools, which tend to be well-funded, saw an 8 percent increase in GPA from 1998 to 2016. Urban public high schools, many in less wealthy areas, saw a negligible change over the same period.

These inflated GPAs would pose no equity issue when relying on class rank, which gives context to students’ GPAs by comparing them with those from students attending the same high school. However, many high schools began shying away from issuing class rankings in recent years. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, only 1 in 3 admissions counselors identified class rank as a relevant part of a student’s college application.

Extracurricular activities also become more important on a college application with the elimination of test scores. But activities often cost money. Children from low-income families are three times less likely than their wealthy counterparts to participate in clubs or sports, and 1 in 3 low-income children are not participating in any after school activities, according to the U.S. Census data cited by Robert Putnam in his 2015 book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Conversely, 90 percent of children from wealthy families are participating in after school activities.

It can cost $4,000 to $6,000 to pay for college application counseling, according to the Independent Education Consultants Association. Application essays aren’t due until January or February in most cases, but most of my friends who work with private counselors have already finished theirs or fully planned them out. Many of my friends without the extra help, however, feel completely lost.

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, college counseling is more essential than ever as students navigate both modified schooling and college admissions, two unfamiliar and overwhelming experiences.

Colleges need to do an even better job selecting students based on merit and eliminating barriers that can hurt an applicant’s chances. Instead of shifting the weight of applications to other factors that also heavily rely on income, colleges need to implement a system that takes an applicant’s financial situation into account if they ever wish to achieve true equity.

A version of this piece first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.