Admissions scandal highlights ‘disconnect’ between colleges’ message and action

Admissions scandal highlights ‘disconnect’ between colleges’ message and action

September 18, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the college
admissions scandal. Amna Nawaz takes a look beyond today’s sentencing
of a prominent actress. AMNA NAWAZ: This college admissions scandal,
which includes Felicity Huffman and other wealthy parents, has essentially turned into
a public indictment of some elite institutions. But it’s also spurred a larger conversation
about admissions, access and inequality throughout our system of higher education. Paul Tough’s new book focuses on these very
questions. It’s called “The Years That Matter Most: How
College Makes or Breaks Us.” And Paul Tough joins me now. Welcome to the “NewsHour.” So, tell us, these high-profile cases like
the one involving Felicity Huffman, in the larger world of college admissions, are these
the exceptions or the rule? PAUL TOUGH, Author, “The Years That Matter
Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us”: Well, I think they are the most extreme expression
of the kind of inequality, the extra advantages that affluent parents have. Certainly, the — Felicity Huffman and the
other parents who were caught up in the scandal went a little crazier than other affluent
parents. But the competition, the pressure around college
admissions makes a lot of affluent parents behave a little crazy. AMNA NAWAZ: But the message we get from colleges,
from higher education institutions is, look, we’re here to reward academic excellence. We want to build diverse communities. That’s what we’re looking for in the college
admissions process. Is that actually the case? PAUL TOUGH: In some cases, it is, but there
is a real disconnect between the way that colleges and the institutions that are part
of the college system talk about equity and merit, and what you actually see when you
look at the populations of American colleges and universities. At the most highly selective institutions,
the student bodies are almost entirely made up of students from the top income quintile,
and students from the bottom income quintile are almost entirely absent. So these colleges aren’t in any way a reflection
of the breadth of the American population. They’re really dominated by the affluent. AMNA NAWAZ: And is that story true regardless
of the type of institution, whether you’re looking at elite institutions, like the Harvards
and the Stanfords, or state schools? Is that the same story everywhere? PAUL TOUGH: No, there’s a real variation. So the most highly selective institutions,
which are mostly private institutions, are dominated by the affluent. But when you look at the less selective institutions,
including community colleges, those are the institutions where low-income students are
more likely to go, and those are the institutions where we spend the least on our students. I mean, I feel like the flip side of the college
admissions scandal is the scandal of how little we are now spending on public higher education. Over the last couple of decades, we have cut
our public funding on higher education by 16 percent per student. And that means that the kind of public universities
where most low-income students go are not only raising tuition; they’re also having
to cut corners. And that really affects the education that
the students are getting. AMNA NAWAZ: Help me understand from the college
admissions perspective, though. Is this just about them admitting the students
who’ve had access to better education and therefore have a leg up when it comes to the
admissions process? Or are they making a different decision based
on who can pay and what they can pay? PAUL TOUGH: It depends on the institution. So there are some institutions, a handful
of institutions, where the endowment is so huge that they don’t really depend on tuition
revenue at all. So the reason why they are admitting so many
high-income students, I think, has more to do with their culture than anything else. But for a large number of highly selective
private institutions, there are real financial pressures. About a quarter of those institutions are
now running a deficit, and many more are really close to that line. And so when they’re selecting students to
admit, they have got to think, more than ever anything else, about tuition. They’re really looking for customers. And that means they’re looking for affluent
students. And for admissions officers, that leads to
this real sort of cognitive dissonance, because they know that they’re looking for customers
who can pay, but the communications department and the president’s office at their colleges
often talk about merit and diversity and fairness instead. AMNA NAWAZ: So, Paul, help us understand how
college admissions officers are making these decisions. You focused on one institution in particular. What did you find there? PAUL TOUGH: Yes, I spent some time at Trinity
College in Hartford, Connecticut. And the admissions director there, a man named
Angel Perez, was and is trying to change the way that Trinity does its admissions to become
more diverse in both socioeconomics and race. And, in some ways, he’s succeeding. He’s making some definite strides. But what I understood spending time with him
is all of the pressures that exist for him and other admissions officers, the pressure
of early admissions, the pressure of sports, and the pressure of SAT scores. All of these factors are weighing on admissions
directors like Angel, and they are almost all pointing in the opposite direction. The pressure that you get when you’re in the
admissions office is, admit more rich kids. And if you want to push back against that,
it’s often quite difficult. AMNA NAWAZ: You have argued in your book that
parts of the admissions process, things like the SAT, right, that even those give an unfair
advantage in many ways to wealthy students or students from a wealthy background, that
they can get tutors, that they can get their SAT scores pumped up. That helps to justify their admission in many
cases. The College Board, I should mention, has pushed
back on that. They say that the more information they can
provide to college admissions members, the better, that SATs are just one of the factors
that should be considered as a holistic admissions process. What do you say to that? PAUL TOUGH: Well, there’s a longstanding debate
in higher education and particularly in admissions on the value of the SAT. And most people agree that your high school
grades are the best predictor of how well you will do in college. And then, if you add the SAT to that factor,
you get a slightly better prediction of how well a student will do. What people who are opposed to the use of
the SAT in college admissions say is that that slight statistical benefit that you get
from adding the SAT is outweighed by the fact that the SAT — that SAT scores correlate
so closely with family income. So when you use SAT scores in admissions,
it’s hard not to admit a lot of rich kids and admit very few poor kids. And so that — that’s the pushback against
the College Board’s case. AMNA NAWAZ: Paul, the story we have been told
is that college can be the place where there’s the engine of opportunity, right? Regardless of where you came from, college
can be the place where you can change the trajectory of your life. What you’re telling us is, there are some
tilts in the system, some inequalities that are institutionalized based on the wealth
that you grew up in. So can it be fixed? What could be done right now to make it more
equal? PAUL TOUGH: Well, I would say that both — both
things are true. So, absolutely. For individual students who I followed in
the reporting for my book, higher education is still a fantastic engine of social mobility. If they are the lucky ones who are admitted
to the institutions that give them the biggest boost, their lives change, absolutely. But there is no question that the system as
a whole is tilted. There are advantages at — on all levels that
favor the affluent over everybody else. So I think there’s two things that need to
change. On the private, highly selective side, it
is really an admissions question more than anything else. And those admissions departments need to make
different decisions and use different criteria in the way they’re selecting students. But on the — in the system as a whole, what
really needs to change is the way that we fund public higher education. I think part of the reason that families are
so competitive about those most highly selective private institutions is, we don’t have a robust
enough public system to compete with that private system. If we go back to funding our public institutions,
they will become the real engines of social mobility. AMNA NAWAZ: Paul Tough, he is the author of
“The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” Thank you very much. PAUL TOUGH: Thank you.