The College Admissions Process: Does the Upper-Middle Class Have an Advantage?

By Sophia Milla (‘20)


Today, numbers are crucial when applying to college. Colleges stress the importance of standardized test scores, grade point averages (GPAs) and even class rank from some high schools. But in the midst of the wilderness, there is one factor that goes unseen and unnoticed by most schools, yet it gives a considerable push for a small number of students in the college admissions process: family income.


In the past, the United States took pride in its high population achieving advanced levels of education. But things have changed with higher competition and time.


According to the Department of Education, “A generation ago, America led the world in college attainment of young adults; now, we rank 13th.” America’s peak year for college enrollment was back in 2010, with 21.0 million students enrolled in college. However, after that, numbers began to slowly drop. This year, the number of students attending college was expected to be 5% lower.


Currently, the Czech Republic is the leading country for college graduates, with nearly 70% of young adults attaining their degree. Along with that, tuition is free and is far more straightforward compared to America’s system. The United States has a little over 44% in its proportion of young adult college graduates. A lot of it connects to social class when looking at the numbers.


The bottom 20%, which is the lowest social class based on the graph below, has a majority (more than 70%) that do not attend college right after high school. And it’s not just a sabbatical year; in fact, the majority are still not in college by age 22. The higher end of the social pyramid is completely different.


According to a study done by The New York Times, 10% of the top social class have children attending Ivy League schools, and 45% of others attend other top-tier schools.

What is the reasoning behind these unfortunate differences?


It doesn’t necessarily mean bribing colleges, such as what occurred in the 2019 college admissions scandal. Rather, having more money can mean getting an advantage in resources. SAT prep and resources may be awfully expensive for most families, but for a majority of the upper-middle class, it may not be a problem.


While most universities highly stress the SAT, it’s not the only factor that goes into college acceptance They look at extracurricular activities and special experiences as well. However, when adding up the costs at the end of the year, joining clubs and sports can be expensive. Not only that, but special, “resume-worthy” experiences can be costly as well. But out-of-school activities, for many colleges, are attention-grabbing in the admission process.


According to The Atlantic, “College admissions offices tend to give preference to students who have prolific resumes demonstrating their engagement outside of school—a tendency that’s grown in recent times alongside increased student demand for higher education.”

For the upper-middle class, there may not be any concerns as to how much money it will all cost. But for a student with less money, the cost matters.


According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, “Comprehensive [college prep] packages for a student range from $850 to $10,000, while the average hourly fee is $200. Such fee levels mean that many middle-class families are able to find private counselors, but the wealthy have access to services that are priced beyond the reach of most Americans. In 2005, Inside Higher Ed wrote about a three-and-one-half-day workshop for which the fee was $9,999.”


Of course, there are some free resources that are offered by websites such as Collegeboard, but once again, the services are not as personal and individual-focused as the ones that are expensive.


Some programs are making an effort to level the playing field in college acceptance. VarsityTutors established the “Test Prep 4 All” initiative, which consists of live, free online ACT/SAT classes open to all American students.


Another program, Khan Academy, run by the CollegeBoard, offers free online SAT practice.

It would be optimal for expensive college and SAT programs to be eliminated so everybody can get an equal opportunity. But in a world swarming with market competition and the desire for profit, chances are low that such programs will be removed. And thus the playing field will probably still remain uneven.

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