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College Access And Inequality


The criminal prosecution of college admissions fraud prompted a revealing reaction. Prosecutors allege that wealthy parents paid for fake test scores and bogus athletic scholarships to get their kids into elite schools. Many people were baffled that the parents would go to such extremes when wealthy people can normally game the system in ways that are considered socially acceptable. The basic unfairness of the system is on the mind of Alexandra Robbins, whose books include, "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives Of Driven Kids." She joined us along with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who's noted for her reporting on racial inequality in education.

Do we have a system where, even if the competition is hypothetically fair, people with more resources are just going to win more often? They're just going to be able to compete and do the things that are necessary when there are hundreds of applicants for a slot.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Yes. And then we also have to take into effect legacy admissions, which favor white, wealthy families, and also athletic admissions, which does the same. Go ahead, Nikole.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: We can't imagine a system that's hypothetically fair and then talk about wealthy people because that means that it is not fair. I write about educational inequality in the K-12 system. We know that wealthier parents are able to get access to schools that simply offer more curriculum, better curriculum, access to advanced placement courses. They're able to graduate kids with a 4.4 on a 4-point scale. So we can't even imagine a system that is fair. And on top of that, parents who are already getting every advantage for their children are determined that they are going to use their wealth to secure even more.

That means that the type of kids that I write about, who can have done everything right, can have worked just as hard or harder, but are going to less-resource schools and their parents can't call an admissions officer and offer to pay for a building or to donate large amounts of money, simply don't have the same shot. The percentage of black and Latino kids at flagship universities largely has not increased.

INSKEEP: Really? Because we have had this drive for diversity, but, as has been well-publicized, Asian kids are getting more and more slots. But you said black and Latino kids are not.

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. You can see the data on this. The trend lines over the last 35 years are fairly flat. And I think we should really think about - you know, we hear all the time that colleges have a drive for diversity. But when you look at the numbers, black and Latino children or students remain disproportionately under-enrolled in these elite schools. Where they remained over-enrolled are in the predatory, kind of for-profit college area.

INSKEEP: What does it mean when we have this discussion in the country about income inequality, and people who are concerned about changing the tax code, taxing the wealthy - doing that sort of thing - will often say, well, actually what we need is equal opportunity, and the way to ensure that is education. Just be sure everybody gets a good education, and it'll be great. Do we have a system that makes that remotely possible?

ROBBINS: Currently? No. I would say not. Nikole?

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. That's easy. No, we don't.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

HANNAH-JONES: And honestly, we don't actually want that. I mean, all of my work is centered around this American ideal that we believe in equal opportunity. But then we have a system that's set up where every parent is trying to advantage their own child.

INSKEEP: What would you have wealthy parents do? If a person is sitting there and saying, I'm privileged. I've been lucky in life. I've made a lot of money, I want the very best for my kid. I want to do everything possible. Am I not supposed to do everything possible? How would you answer that parent?

HANNAH-JONES: (Laughter) I mean, I don't think I will have a convincing argument for that parent. I think that parent will believe that they deserve everything that they're getting for their child. What I would say then is don't pretend that you actually believe in equality because you don't. I think that we need to start thinking about education as a common good and not just about an individual good - what can I get for my own child - but what is the benefit for society? But I think that's a very hard thing to ask parents. These parents are gaming the system because they want to advantage their children. And most parents are not going to stop doing that.

INSKEEP: Alexandra, you get the last word.

ROBBINS: There is no best when it comes to schools. Parents think they're doing something good for their kids when they try to push, push, push so hard to get these kids into schools. But teenage anxiety and depression rates are on the rise. Suicide rates are skyrocketing. Approximately 1 in 12 college students has a suicide plan, many of them because of this process.


ROBBINS: Children are dying because of this pressure. Forget about the college admissions process. It's not important in the big scheme.

INSKEEP: Alexandra Robbins of The Atlantic is author of books including "The Overachievers" and the newest one "Fraternity." Thanks very much for coming by.

ROBBINS: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: And Nikole Hannah-Jones writes for The New York Times Magazine. Thanks for joining us.

HANNAH-JONES: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.