As U.S. college admission process opens, scandal weighs on low-income
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[August 07, 2019]
By Matthew Lavietes
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Christine Bascombe, a
New York City high school student who dreams of attending Cornell
University, says she was devastated last spring to hear that dozens of
rich parents had committed fraud to get their children into elite
The 16-year-old, who will enter her final year at Brooklyn's
Williamsburg Charter High School in the fall, says nearly every waking
hour is dedicated to earning a spot in the Ivy League school.
"Sometimes you can work your hardest and still not get what you want,"
said Bascombe. "And you feel even more powerless when you realize that
these people are committing fraud to get into the schools you want to
Bascombe is one of thousands of high school students who last week began
submitting applications for admission to U.S. universities for the
2020-21 school year, an annual rite for seniors that begins each August
This year's "Common Application" cycle is the first since the cheating
scandal was exposed in March.
More than 30 wealthy parents, including Hollywood actresses Felicity
Huffman and Lori Loughlin and prominent figures from the financial
industry, were among the nearly 50 people charged in the scandal. They
were accused of paying a California consultant millions of dollars to
help their children get into Yale, the University of Southern California
and other prominent schools through fraudulent means.
Interviews with more than a dozen low-income students and college
advisers suggest the scandal heightened questions about fairness of the
admissions process, and shook the confidence of some who hope to beat
the long odds of getting into a top school. The acceptance rates at
Harvard or Yale, for example, are around 5% to 6%, and about 14% of
those who apply to Cornell are accepted.
Most of the students interviewed said they were not surprised the
admissions system was tilted in favor of the wealthy. But they were
outraged and felt further disadvantaged by revelations of how blatant
the manipulation was in the bribery scandal.
Several belong to an eight-year college enrichment program run by the
Henry Street Settlement, a New York nonprofit designed to help
first-generation Americans and lower-income students maximize their
"I feel like not much is going to change," said Khemasia Pierce, a
17-year-old who hopes to attend the University of Rochester. "Anyone can
be bought with the right number."
A recent Pew Research Center study indicates that wealthy students still
have an edge in admissions, even as most top U.S. universities say they
want to increase socioeconomic diversity.
The percentage of U.S. undergraduates from poverty backgrounds increased
8 points from 1999 to 2016, the study found. Yet at the most selective
universities, the percentage of low-income students increased by just 3
points while the percentage of admissions of students from the
wealthiest households rose by 4 points.
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Khemasia Pierce poses in New York City, U.S., August 5, 2019.
'WHAT WE ALL EXPECTED'
As of the 2017-2018 school year, there were 4,298 universities in
the United Sates, according to the National Center for Education
Statistics. But as higher education has become more accessible to
Americans, admission to the country's top 50 universities has become
much more competitive.
And some wealthy parents were willing to bribe their childrens' way
in, either by hiring stand-ins to take or correct college entrance
exams or through payments to college sports coaches to fabricate
Saffronia Traore-Rogers, 17, said she has "been grinding" to make
the grade to get into her top choice of Dartmouth College, another
Ivy League school. "This just makes it feel like even if I do this,
it wonít work. It keeps me in a constant loop of anxiety."
Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard
University, said money and privilege can still play a role in who
gets into the top schools.
"This cheating scandal showed us what we all expected, but we were
never able to observe," said Jack, whose research specializes in
lower-income and minority undergraduates. Harvard was one of eight
colleges involved in the scandal.
When Pierce learned about the scandal, she said her efforts to get
into a top school suddenly felt pointless.
"Everyone complains about how 'black people go to jail' and 'they
sell drugs,' ... but when we try to better ourselves, you take away
spots and opportunities for us," Pierce said.
Many students make personal sacrifices in the belief that the system
will reward hard work over privilege.
During her junior year, Bascombe gave up a beloved theater program
in exchange for a second math course at the advice of her guidance
While it was "heartbreaking" to give up a class that provided an
escape, she said, "I had to focus on making my transcript really
Several schools involved in the scandal have launched investigations
and rolled out reforms aimed at preventing fraudulent admissions,
raising the prospect of a more fair process going forward.
For Bascombe, the scandal was not enough to abandon her Cornell
"I know this happens and I canít do anything to control it,"
Bascombe said. "The only thing I can do is prove my place and
continue to do what I do."
But she has decided to take theater again in her last year of high
(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty
and Bill Berkrot)
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