Competition to get into college or university has always been a hallmark of higher education. Because educational institutions have such a huge impact on students’ lives and future earning potential, the competition can feel ruthless for applicants—and the schools looking to attract the best applicants possible.
Theoretically, at least, it’s a meritocracy, with the “best” students admitted to the best universities. In practice, it’s been a different story. No one feels this dichotomy more fiercely than students trying to carve out a space for themselves in such a highly competitive system. In particular, marginalized students may feel as though the entry point to education is far less accessible than it is for more privileged students.
It’s a simple fact that students with socioeconomic disadvantages or who are otherwise marginalized have faced steep barriers to accessing higher education. Those with means are often privileged through opportunities that only money can buy, like expensive exam prep, more resources to support an application or simply the luxury of time to study, undistracted by employment obligations. In addition, there are legacy admissions or athletic programs, opportunities that often favor higher-income applicants from affluent families and backgrounds.
I can only imagine how it would feel to be a young college or university hopeful watching the wave of change begin with the “Varsity Blues” scandal of 2019, which uncovered a for-profit scheme to influence admissions at top-tier schools. Among other issues, the scandal laid bare the lack of transparency in admissions processes that spotlighted the fact that there are hidden ways for those with financial means to gain access to top schools.
The recent admissions landscape
In the last five years, students have experienced several challenges and disruptions to the educational system, including the aforementioned college admissions scandal and COVID-19 disruptions. This has led to increased test optional-admissions policies, canceled SAT tests and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action policies in June.
College entrance exams and test scores fail to differentiate one student from another. What exactly is the difference between Student A, who scores in the 91st percentile on their SATs, and Student B who scores in the 89th percentile? A student’s unique lived experiences, non-academic skills and values are what make them stand out. It is the diversity of viewpoints and robust interpersonal skills that pave the way for future success educationally, professionally and beyond.
We are currently in uncharted territory in the world of college admissions. Institutions have the opportunity to rebuild the system so that applicants from all walks of life and demographics can access education.
What comes next for college admissions?
The shift in college admissions heralds a promising new era of potentially equal opportunities for every student. Institutions are now tasked with redefining what constitutes a successful applicant, moving away from historical metrics that disadvantaged marginalized individuals. Students, on the other hand, are empowered to advocate for systemic changes, share their unique stories, and prioritize applying to schools that focus on equity and inclusion. The evolving landscape of college admissions offers a unique opportunity to level the playing field for all students.