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The US college cheating scandal that unfolded March 12 has sparked a national conversation on how education inequity affects low-income students.

Fifty people, including high-profile celebrities, college coaches, and standardized test administrators, across six states, were charged by federal prosecutors for committing fraud and acts of bribery. The parents and applicants allegedly paid more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018. They also forged photos and facilitated test cheating to get children into academic and athletic programs at Ivy Leagues and top schools from Stanford to the University of Southern California, in what’s being considered the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted. 

And low-income students, who benefit from higher education the most, are the ones who bear the brunt of a school system that allows this behavior to occur, educators say

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Author Morgan Jerkins, who wrote about her experience as a student of color at Princeton University in her book of essays This Will be My Undoing, is now a visiting assistant professor at Columbia University’s MFA nonfiction program. Jerkins told Global Citizen the scandal is an example of how the wealthy use their privilege to get ahead.

“What it shows is the glaring inequalities between the haves and the have nots, and how the window of opportunity is either already available for the socioeconomically privileged or they scam their way into it,” Jerkins said. 

Low-income students are already vastly underrepresented at the most competitive schools in the US, where only 3% of incoming freshmen are from families in the bottom income quartile. With only 16% of low-income college students graduating from college, using fraud and bribery to admit wealthy students only worsens the socioeconomic divide and makes it harder for underserved youth to break poverty cycles, and uplift their communities. Wealthy parents coaching their children into getting diagnosed as having a learning disability, to qualify them for extra time or other accommodations while taking college entrance exams, adds to the long list of disadvantages low-income students face. 

Read More: Retaking the SAT Helps Low-Income Students Get Into College, Study Finds

“We have known that it is extraordinarily difficult for even the most exceptional low-income children from under-resourced communities to earn admission into these same schools,” said John Green, executive director of the TEAK Fellowship, a nonprofit organization helping low-income New York City students reach their full potential through education. 

Green told Global Citizen he isn’t surprised by the controversy, which he calls “disheartening.” As a former director of college counseling at two private schools, Green has seen firsthand how low-income students don’t always have the same opportunities as their peers.

“It is, in a word, unconscionable,” Green said about the scandal, “and it is clearly at the expense of TEAK Fellows and other exceptional low-income students who have a vision for their lives no different than the children of the wealthy, and who are willing to do the gritty work necessary to realize their vision all while defying the odds and playing by the rules. They deserve better.” 

Low-income students don’t always know what their options are. Taking college entrance exams more than once to raise acceptance odds, for example, is one tip low-income students aren’t always privy to. Students living in poverty also often lack the information they need to navigate the college application process and will sometimes choose to opt out entirely because they don’t know what resources, like test prep, are available to them. Research has shown that they assume applications cost too much or don’t end up applying to more competitive schools they have a chance at attending. 

Mackie Charles, a public school teacher in New York City and adjunct professor at Pace University, pointed out that even in the event that low-income students are admitted, there’s crushing student loan debt to deal with, which makes it harder to thrive after graduation. 

“The students that do get in are saddled with outrageous student loan debt and are in the hole before they even graduate. So they are getting squeezed from both ends,” Charles told Global Citizen. 

Research showed that the average student in the class of 2016 has $36,172 in student loan debt.  

Some schools honor need-based admissions policies that don’t factor in students’ financial situations into their applications, which prevent economic discrimination and help secure financial aid. Maria Hantzopoulos, the education department chair at Vassar College in New York, which has need-based admissions told Global Citizen while need-blind policies help, higher education is a bigger problem that starts way before college application season. In her classes, Hantzopoulos hopes to break down the meritocracy myths around education in the US that suggest working hard leads to getting ahead.

Tracking, the practice of separating students by academic ability starting at a young age, is one of the root causes of educational inequity, according to Hantzopoulos. The use of high-stakes testing to assess students and hold teachers accountable, which has increased since the No Child Left Behind act passed in 2001, is another, she says. 

“The problem to me is just really much larger than the institution but actually the whole structure of schooling and how it has been devalued and defunded,” Hantzopoulos said. 

Hantzopoulos wants to see a broader revamping of public school policy which includes less emphasis on high-stakes testing, paying teachers better, and providing the resources for strong curricula and a full staff that includes social workers. 

To level the college playing field, educators also want to make SAT and ACT tests optional for admissions. Others are advocating for the government to commit to keeping a close eye on the college consulting industry and allocate more funding to make higher education affordable. 

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national coalition working toward racial and economic justice through education, told Global Citizen that overhauling the US school system to protect marginalized students will require a team effort.

“Together, we must demand more for our students in city halls, state capitols, and the halls of Congress,” Keron Blair, co-director of the alliance, said.

“Now is the time to ensure that all students have access to welcoming neighborhood public schools to prepare them for career, college, and citizenship.”


Defeat Poverty

When the Rich Hack College Admissions, Low-Income Students Pay

By Leah Rodriguez