In the wake of the college admissions scandal, the meritocratic nature of elite universities is under new scrutiny. The revelation that the ultra-wealthy and connected were bribing officers and fabricating application information struck a chord at a time when inequality is at the forefront of the national conversation. Even more dismaying is that these bribes likely weren’t necessary to begin with. Perfectly legal donations and alumni connections routinely land the unexceptional children of the rich and powerful into prestigious institutions.
Regression to the mean is one of the many anxieties of affluence. Yet entry into exclusive collegiate social networks can help to ensure class and status are reproduced across generations. If the black market for elite college admissions feels worse than the usual influence peddling, it’s only because this ulterior motivation is rarely expressed so explicitly.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way elite universities can atone for their role in perpetuating inequality by helping talented students from struggling communities and school districts move up in the world.
One model comes from Johns Hopkins University. It’s called the Baltimore Scholars Program (BSP) and it works like this: Students who attended either a Baltimore City public school or applicable charter school from at least the 10th grade are eligible for a means-tested scholarship. For those coming from families making less than $80,000 per year, tuition, room, and board are completely covered. For those making between $80,000 and $150,000 per year, the family’s contribution is capped at 10% of total family income.
This isn’t affirmative action for Baltimoreans. They still need to get into Hopkins, but once they clear that hurdle, all or most of the costs associated with going to school are taken care of.
The same model could easily be applied to other communities. For example, Stanford could have an Oakland Scholars Program; Harvard and MIT could have a Southie Scholarship; Princeton could have one for students from the Trenton and Newark public schools system, and so on.
On top of scholarships for needy students in their own communities, elite universities could adopt a nationwide focus, offering needs-based scholarships to talented high school graduates from struggling public school districts across the country.
Even if admissions skullduggery were done away with completely, children in low-income households and of limited social capital would still face substantial barriers to getting into top colleges. While these barriers are varied and require many different solutions, the inability to pay for tuition continues to discourages otherwise-talented students from applying at all.
While legislation and other bureaucratic hurdles may need to be cleared before a “Struggling Regions Scholars” program could be implemented in public universities, private universities could create such a program unilaterally. The quality of public education in struggling areas will naturally limit the supply of qualified applicants. Nonetheless, expanding something like the Baltimore Scholars Program to elite universities across the country would go a long way to making the college admissions process more equitable and accessible. Perhaps the best way for top universities to reclaim the mantle of meritocracy is to start practicing it.