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On Friday, January 18, day five of the strike, tens of thousands of union members and supporters held a rally in Grand Park, outside Los Angeles City Hall.
On Friday, January 18, 2019, counselors, teachers and others held a rally during a strike in Los Angeles. (Photo by E. Tammy Kim) Credit: E. Tammy Kim/Hechinger Report

Many people were shocked to learn of recent reports that wealthy parents allegedly fabricated college applications, facilitated cheating on standardized exams and bribed university officials to secure their children’s places in our nation’s best engine for social mobility — selective colleges.

The case has raised alarms about the meritocracy that many have long believed defines U.S. higher education and social mobility.

Public outrage is warranted: When affluent families can simply pay money to ensure their already-heightened advantage in the educational system, one can’t help but doubt the truth about what it takes to advance in our society. But we should be concerned about far more than blatant bribery and cheating.

The reality is that students from affluent families have many advantages over low-income students when it comes to college admissions — and most of them are legal and rarely called into question. Ask any school counselors who’ve spent time supporting low-income students’ college plans and they will tell you that this scandal illustrates yet another advantage in an inequitable system that we expect students across demographic groups to compete in.

While the families in this case stand accused of leveraging highly paid “consultants” — and while others benefit from expensive SAT and essay prep services — countless students do not even have access to a high school counselor. Nationally, the average student-to-counselor ratio is 482 to 1, according to the American School Counselor Association.

As if that weren’t troubling enough, in many parts of the country, a student may have to compete with over 800 other students for time with a counselor. Research shows that counselors who work in schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students have higher caseloads and dedicate less time to college planning and support. In other words, the students who need the most support receive the least. Our failure to invest in counseling is a clear signal that, as a country, we are not committed to leveling the playing field.

Related: Can we please change the conversation about college admissions?

Unfortunately, these facts have yet to prompt action, nor do they scream scandal in the same way that a Department of Justice investigation has. The recent star-studded case is an important reminder that the path to social mobility is paved with gold for some students and blocked for others. But why aren’t we talking about the other barriers?

The recent star-studded case is an important reminder that the path to social mobility is paved with gold for some students and blocked for some others. But why aren’t we talking about the other barriers?

Until we change legislation on school-counselor funding and reform school-counseling programs, those from affluent communities will always have advantages — legal and illegal. As the investigation of this case continues, let us remember that many hardworking young people don’t have the means to hire private tutors to coach them through the SAT, or private counselors that may review and edit their college application essays.

A lack of high school counselors only tells part of the story behind why the system is rigged against students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Colleges are to blame, too. Admissions offices routinely discriminate in their outreach efforts, according to a recent analysis of the travel schedules of admissions officers from more than 200 colleges that shows how little effort they make to recruit students from rural and low-income communities.

Related: L.A.’s school counselors strike back

These admissions practices ultimately limit the future possibilities that many students imagine for themselves, and prevent counselors from connecting students to a wide range of colleges and universities.

Yet, for too long, we have unfairly blamed K-12 counselors for persistent gaps in enrollment across income and race, questioning their expectations and support for students’ plans. We have also blamed students, crafting a false narrative that affirmative action or holistic review has provided black and Latino students a leg up that they didn’t earn. In fact, this case serves as a reminder of the ways in which their far-more advantaged counterparts get a leg up.

In the past 30 years, the enrollment of black, Latino and low-income students at highly selective colleges has remained relatively unchanged, despite significant progress in closing the high school graduation gap.

This incident demonstrates the many ways in which the deck is stacked against students of color and those from low-income communities. And as long as that remains the case, the promise of hard work and a system of opportunity is an illusion. As educators who’ve worked with students for whom this hurts the most, we know this message is not lost on them.

This story about a college admissions scandal was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Mandy Savitz-Romer is the Nancy Pforzheimer Aronson Senior Lecturer in Human Development and Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, as well as the school’s faculty director for prevention science and practice. She is the author of the forthcoming Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success (May 2019) and the co-author of Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success (2012).

Steve Desir is a doctoral student in the educational leadership program at the USC Rossier School of Education, where his research interests include racial equity in college admissions, organizational change and the use of theory-based psychological interventions to facilitate behavioral change.

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