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The Anti-meritocratic System of College Admissions
It has been a few weeks since the US federal indictment called “Operation Varsity Blues” came down upon college-admissions consultants, several coaches, parents, and administrators, detailing the absurd and almost comical methods that some wealthy parents are willing to undertake to get their children into elite colleges. And with a case that high profile and that ridiculous, it can be easy to forget the (legal) advantages that we students of the American School in Japan, as well as private schools throughout the world, have in this supposed meritocratic process.
One of the most glaring advantages a school like ASIJ has is the extensive use of the Advanced Placement system. Created by the College Board, AP courses are designed to offer high school students “college-level curricula and examinations.” Over the last decade or so, AP courses have become instrumental to admission to some of the world’s most prestigious institutions. With over 20 AP courses available at ASIJ in different subjects, coupled with the general pressures from students, parents, and college admissions to take them, it’s not hard to find students taking 3,4, or 5 AP’s starting by sophomore year and paying the $150 fee for each exam. Koa Kellenberger, a senior at ASIJ, even says, “I know some [students] where all their courses are AP’s.” And while taking 15 AP’s is far from the norm in some of America’s elite high schools, in many schools in the US and overseas, that kind of availability of college-level courses just doesn’t exist.
Chris Maturo, a senior at Newtown High School, a public school in Connecticut, explains, “At Newtown High School, you can’t really take AP’s until junior year, and even by junior year, your choices are limited. Psych, Econ, and advanced math classes you can’t take until senior year.” Relative to the rest of the United States, Newtown is quite wealthy; in fact, the western half of Newtown (the zip code 06470) is one of the most affluent areas in Connecticut.
Beyond affluent areas of the US, Scott Jaschik, editor at Inside Education says, “[Students] don’t have those [AP Course] options at inner-city schools.”And even if they did, without proper resources, available teachers, and prior knowledge of how to learn in an advanced class, the chances of these students excelling in an AP class or test drop significantly. By default, low-income students and sometimes even middle-income students are at a disadvantage.
Aside from AP classes, another huge advantage that ASIJ students possess is the availability and number of counselors. This allows for more direct communication with each counselor and, overall, a better preparedness with the application process and for college.
When asked about how involved his counselor was in the college-admissions process, Jack Sullivan, a senior at Newtown High School said, “Like not at all. I cannot even recall talking colleges with my counselor. They’re really not involved in the process.” For many students, this statement rings true. In large public schools or inner-city schools, counselors are assigned to hundreds and hundreds of students, dealing with all sorts of problems outside of just college admissions. There is just not enough time to work with each individual student. It is the wealthier families who can hire private counselors to work for them, on top of their child’s high-school counselors.
These advantages also extend to standardized tests and preparing the application. “If you’re low income, you can get a waiver on taking it but not unlimited waivers. Wealthy students can take the tests over and over again to improve their scores,” explains Jaschik. Some families can also hire private coaches and tutors not just for exams, but for the essays that students submit to colleges.
In the end, Operation Varsity Blues brings into focus the inequality in college admissions. Whether you believe college admissions should be a meritocratic system, it doesn’t take long to realize it’s not that at all.