Who Deserves to Attend Top Colleges?

March 25, 2019

News of the college admissions cheating scandal sparked an important discussion about the responsibility top colleges and universities have to promote equity in their admissions policies. It also resurfaced some old wounds that I realized have had a big influence on my life and career. Many of my high school classmates applied to the college that I attended, Tufts University, but I was one of the few who was accepted. I remember being told by several of them that I didn’t deserve my admission and only got in because I’m African American and played basketball. I quickly realized after arriving on campus a few months later that I was not the only one who may have received special consideration in admissions.

In that first week of school, I met someone who lived in my dorm who proudly declared the building was named after her grandfather. Another neighbor across the hall complained that his father, who was the CEO of a fortune 500 company, had to donate way too much to Tufts in order to get him in off the wait-list.

The question of who deserved admission to my school and others like it was hotly debated on our campus and by many others as the nation argued the merits of affirmative action in the early 90s. As I continued to experience situations where my academic credentials and abilities were questioned, I found it hard to silence my own inner doubts. I was fortunate, however, to find a few mentors on campus who helped me tap into my potential – challenging me to step forward, raise my level of effort, and pursue leadership opportunities. The process of overcoming my own questions of belonging helped me develop a passion for leading others to find similar success through education.

Since 2001, as the leader of Capital Partners for Education (CPE), I have been working to help low-income D.C. area high school students overcome the many barriers that otherwise block their paths to college success. At CPE we help prepare our students to encounter these questions of belonging in college by taking them on a retreat in the summer prior to the start of their freshman year and helping them think through how they will address some of the challenges they will likely encounter. Once they are in school, our staff and mentors continue to advise and support them to ensure they stay on track.

As first generation, low-income college students, CPE’s students must navigate a system that is designed to benefit the wealthy and leaves them disadvantaged. When applying to schools, our students compete with peers who may be legacies or development admits, who attended top private schools, and can afford private college counselors, SAT classes, and tutors. When our students arrive they often struggle to fit in socially with their wealthy white peers, and may not be able to afford to travel home for holidays, eat out, have their families visit, take unpaid internships, or fully immerse themselves in their studies because they have to work full-time in addition to being a student.

Today, only 11% of low-income students earn college degrees by age 24, a rate that is more than 5 times lower than their higher income peers, and the greatest disparities are for those who are African American, Latino, and first generation to college. Yet earning a degree is more important than ever before in the U.S. In past generations, youth with high school diplomas could find secure middle class wages with health care, and even pensions. But as more jobs continue to be replaced by machines, and employers seek higher level skills, the percentage of jobs in D.C. that now require a college degree has increased to 65%.

As our nation grapples with demographic changes that points to the U.S. becoming a ‘minority white’ country in 2045 and income stratification, our system of higher education and our local, state, and federal governments all need to step up and address the fact that the current path is not a match for the country’s ideals of equal access or for its economic future. Too many talented young people are not given the full opportunity to achieve economic mobility because they don’t get the preparation, access, or support to get a great education like I did.

It is my hope that when considering student merit in the zero-sum world of college admissions, that we not only recognize that some students are privileged and others disadvantaged, but that we actually do something about it. Policy leaders will take on big questions this election cycle, and the publicity from this admissions scandal presents an opportunity to change unfair policies and practices that continue to leave low-income, under-represented minority, and first generation to college students behind.

This is a moment to address education equity issues like disparities in local school district funding, teacher qualification for low-income districts, racially biased disciplinary policies, and funding for state and federal financial aid to catch up to the increases in tuition that make college unaffordable for so many. Colleges and universities can do their part by eliminating standardized tests, legacy preferences, and early admissions, and make a true commitment to building a more racially and economically diverse student body. Our low-income, students of color may not have wealthy parents paving their way and ensuring they are prioritized but they can be just as qualified and deserving if they are given a fair chance.

Khari Brown, CEO