Thinking of going to college? Sending your kid? You may already be caught up in the needless complexity of the admissions process, with its never-ending stress and that “you’ll-be-lucky-to-get-in” attitude from colleges that nonetheless pretend to have your interests at heart.

What aren’t they telling you? A lot, as it turns out — beginning with how much they actually cost, how long it will take to finish, the likelihood that graduates get jobs and the myriad advantages that wealthy applicants enjoy. They don’t want you to know that transfer credits often aren’t accepted, or that they pay testing companies for the names of prospects to recruit and sketchy advice websites for the contact information of unwitting students. And they don’t reveal tricks such as how to get admitted even if you’re turned down as a freshman.

But we will. In College Uncovered, from The Hechinger Report and GBH News, two experienced higher education journalists pull back the ivy on how colleges and universities really work, providing information students and their parents need to have before they make one of the most expensive decisions in their lives: whether and where to go to college. We expose the problems, pitfalls and risks, with inside information you won’t hear on other podcasts, including disconcerting facts that they’ve sometimes pried from unwilling universities.

In our first season, we’ll reveal the secrets of the admissions process, including a few secrets to getting in. You’ll hear about the meritocracy myth, graduation frustrations and that transfer trap, how prices have been rising fastest for the lowest-income families and how universities and colleges spend billions marketing themselves and balancing enrollment in their own best interest — not yours.

So if you wonder how college really works, subscribe on your favorite podcast platform now or listen below. It’s a real education.


Episode 1: Misleading U

Colleges are increasingly hard up for students so they make a lot of promises they don’t keep. In this episode, hosts GBH’s Kirk Carapezza and Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report talk with students, economists and industry experts about what you need to know before putting down that tuition deposit.

And it all starts with how much college will cost. Although it’s one of the biggest investments a person can ever make, most consumers don’t know what they’ll end up spending on a degree. Colleges overwhelmingly do not disclose – or simply understate – how much families will pay. They tie themselves in knots to avoid using the word “loan” even when students need one.

Most freshmen think they’ll graduate with bachelor’s degrees within four years, but that’s not true, either. More than half will take more than four years, further increasing the cost. Good luck finding this out, though; thanks to lobbying by colleges, the graduation rate reported by the government represents the proportion of students who finish in six or eight years, not four.

Colleges aren’t entirely honest about what a diploma gets you either. While they boast that most alums are gainfully employed, colleges know the whereabouts of less than half of their alums.  Forty-four percent to be precise. 

Getting a degree still pays off, especially considering that people who have one earn $18,000 a year more by the middle of their careers than their counterparts with a high school diploma.

But this misinformation contributes to the fact that many Americans with college educations are underemployed and working in restaurants and as coffee baristas. It’s no wonder that only about a third of Americans say they have a lot of confidence in higher education. 

Episode 2: Affirmative Action … for the Rich 

The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal exposed just how far rich, famous and entitled parents would go to get their kids into big name colleges.

But the truth is there are many ways colleges already give preferences to wealthy students that are completely legal.

Hosts Kirk Carapezza and Jon Marcus dig into how college admissions favors students who can pay giant tuition bills – even as the US Supreme Court withdraws affirmative action advantages that benefited low-income students of color.

They explain how early decision benefits wealthy students who can afford to commit to a college before seeing a financial aid offer. 

And they explore the world of private college advising and the college “coaches” who charge hundreds of dollars an hour to advise families on the admissions process. 
Some top companies, including J.P. Morgan Chase and American Express, are even offering college coaching as a free benefit to their employees

Episode 3: Secret Sophomore Admissions

Getting turned down by your dream college doesn’t always mean you’ve been categorically rejected. Some applicants who fail to get in as freshmen, for example, are invited back … as sophomores. They don’t even need to reapply. It’s one of many secrets admissions officers prefer to keep quiet.

Colleges don’t do this kind of thing out of the goodness of their hearts. They know a shamefully high number of freshmen – about one in four on average, will drop out. That’s a lot of seats they need to fill. 

Colleges also know that the students they accept as sophomores won’t count in all-important college ranking calculations, which are based mainly on the characteristics of entering freshmen. This makes it a way to admit the children of alumni and donors who might not have made the first cut.

The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus and GBH’s Kirk Carapezza dive into how secret sophomore admissions works — and whether it might work for you.

“College Uncovered” is made possible by Lumina Foundation.

Episode 4: The Meritocracy Myth

While colleges make it seem as if they choose applicants solely on their merit as students, that’s not always the case. Former admissions officer Kyra Tyler shares her experience working in an admissions office, where she was asked to prioritize less academically qualified students with family connections and wealth. 

GBH’s Kirk Carapezza and GBH guest host Kana Ruhalter also dive into new research that exposes a shift in how colleges distribute financial aid. 

Researcher Steven Burd studied admissions packages at hundreds of selective public and private colleges and found that colleges are spending billions on students, spreading it around among students who don’t necessarily need the aid. This happens at the expense of needier students.

And reporter Fazil Khan from The Hechinger Report discusses new data showing the net price of college is actually rising faster for lower-income students, exacerbating the disparities in higher education.

“College Uncovered” is made possible by Lumina Foundation.