Colleges are hailed in our society as the epitome of the American dream by providing students with equal opportunities, allowing for each of us to thrive in our society-- as long as we put in the work. We as Americans value hard work and believe that it should open doors for our future, but the reality is, some people have to push harder than others to open doors in America. 

The recent college admissions scandal has raised awareness of how the college application system has been finessed to benefit the elite of our society, but the issue in the American college application process lies deeper than the ability to bribe your way in. The application process is profoundly flawed in that it is significantly more difficult for students from low-income families to successfully apply to college than students in upper-class and middle-class families. The bigger issue does not lie in the fact that the system can be cheated, but rather that the system itself is unjust.

The college application system utilizes standardized testing, high school transcripts, extracurricular activities and essays to narrow down the applicants into a group of admitted students. On the surface, this method appears to take a broad approach to look for past academic achievement as an indicator for future collegiate success. This system assumes that these indicators of success are accurate, but these application components can be forged, as seen in the recent scandal, and they are inherently financially biased.

Colleges rely on standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, as a basic measurement of intelligence. Standardized testing is often seen as fundamentally objective, as the entire point of it being "standardized" is that all students are tested in the same manner. Before you even sit in the examination room, the "standardization" of the test has been compromised, as your test score is impacted by how much money your family has. 

Source: New York Times

The discrepancy seen in SAT scores across income levels can be attributed to the fact that students from low-income families may have to work multiple jobs, while other students are able to dedicate that time to studying for standardized tests. Students from higher-income families also have more access to standardized test preparation materials, such as test books, preparation courses and private tutors.  

It costs around fifty dollars to take the SAT, a fee which can be waived on the basis of financial need. The fee waiver can only be applied twice though, and students often retake the SAT multiple times to raise their score. It has been shown that students who take the SAT multiple times tend to increase their score, therefore the inability of lower-income students to take the SAT again harms their chances of a higher score. 

SAT and ACT scores are not the only tests that hold significance in the college application, AP and IB exams hold value as well. When colleges look over high school transcripts, they like to see challenging courses, such as AP and IB classes. Students in AP classes tend to take multiple AP classes, and take the AP exam in the Spring. AP exams cost around $94 per exam, putting students who are unable to pay for AP exams at a noticeable disadvantage when it comes to getting into college.


Another key component of the college application is the application essay. Although this is a time for disadvantaged students to justify any lacking areas of their application, the application essay is not immune to bias. In general, students from upper-class and middle-class families are able to write better application essays because they are able to hire professionals to review their essays, or even write them.

Colleges often prefer well-rounded students: students with multiple extracurricular activities and jobs on their resumes. A strong resume costs money to build though, as a lot of impressive internships are unpaid, and students from low-income families are unable to accept unpaid internships. Fortunately, our society is recognizing this issue, and the number of paid internships is increasing. 

Being able to participate in extracurricular activities is a challenge for students from low-income families as well, as there are often participation fees and dues. Around 30% of students from lower-income families had to drop extracurricular activities due to the cost. Disadvantaged students also may be unable to do extracurricular activities because they may have to work instead. The inability of students from lower-income families to participate in extracurricular activities further blocks them from a college application acceptance.  


Another barrier between college and students from low-income families is college application fees. A college application costs $43 on average, and students apply to an average of 5.8 colleges. This adds up to around $250 per student, a price that can be difficult to manage for disadvantaged students. The more colleges one applies to, the better the odds one has of getting accepted, therefore students who can afford to apply to more colleges, have higher chances of getting in. Colleges make a significant profit from rejected applications, as they can reject an application by simply glancing at a too-low-SAT-score and then take the application fee. 

Students from low-income families are unable to pay for good standardized test scores, strong high school transcripts, impressive application essays, well-rounded resumes and a large number of application fees. Therefore, they are at a clear disadvantage when applying to college. By prohibiting access to higher education for low-income students, the American college application system perpetuates the poverty cycle. It keeps disadvantaged students from being able to better themselves while allowing upper-class and middle-class students to continue to prosper.

This is vastly apparent in the legacy status system of college applications. When applying to colleges, a common application question is “do you have any relatives who have attended or are employed at this college or university?” If you are able to answer yes, you are more likely to get into the college. This poorly disguised reinforcement of nepotism is unfair to students below the poverty line. Their families were unable to attend college, and this does not mean that they should also be unable to attend college. Just because one has a family history at a college does not mean that they will necessarily do well at that college. The legacy status benefits well-off students while harming students from low-income families, thus allowing colleges to reinforce the American poverty cycle. 

It is ironic that the institution representative of the American dream is so successful at keeping the poor in poverty. Some may argue that colleges account for the disadvantage low-income students face through need-based scholarships. This assertion is wildly inaccurate because students must first be accepted into a school to qualify for need-based scholarships, but they face a disadvantage in the college application process, and therefore are less likely to obtain a college acceptance: a classic "Catch-22."

The college application process could end the issue of poverty cycle reinforcement by creating a financial affirmative action system. Affirmative action is currently utilized to grant special consideration in higher education and employment for minorities. It is usually applied in race and gender, as certain groups who have faced past discrimination are currently still at a disadvantage, and affirmative action provides a path so that they can catch up. Applying affirmative action to students from low-income families would allow our society to create a track out of poverty.

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