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NEW YORK — By the time actress Lori Loughlin pleaded guilty last week to bribing her daughters’ way into the University of Southern California, any notion that the U.S. higher education system is fair had evaporated.

Education as the great equalizer? Hardly. Harvard researcher Anthony Jack revealed in his groundbreaking 2019 book how poor students cleaned showers and toilets and went hungry after cafeterias closed while their wealthier Ivy League classmates fled campus for ski resorts and spring break beaches.

Transparent admission standards? Nope. In 2006, journalist Daniel Golden exposed how President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, found his way into Harvard despite lackluster grades with the help of his dad’s $2.5 million donation. Fair admission tests? Paul Tough’s new book deftly explored why standardized test scores like the SAT inevitably tilt elite college admissions towards rich students, as does their ability to pay in full.

And last year, the outrageous Varsity Blues scandal that netted Loughlin, college coaches and dozens of others showed how money, celebrity and fraud can pave a road into the nation’s most coveted institutions.

Now, with the coronavirus upending campus life, comes “The Merit Myth,” in which Georgetown researcher Anthony Carnevale, along with Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl, meticulously detail the many ways U.S. colleges favor the rich.

“The Merit Myth” describes how higher education gives lip service to the promise of social mobility, while remaining ever more segregated by class and race. It comes at a time when, despite some strides, poorer and minority students are disproportionately attending community colleges and regional public universities with lower success rates.

higher education crisis
A new book by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce director Anthony Carnevale and colleagues concludes that America’s colleges and universities perpetuate class and race hierarchies and sink the lower classes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Georgetown University

Only 19 percent of blacks and Latinos with high SAT scores go to selective institutions, compared to 31 percent of whites with similar scores, the book points out. And whites are far more likely to benefit from the earnings premium that comes with a college degree.

Related: Many flagship public campuses leave black and Latino students behind

Carnevale’s research has long helped inform The Hechinger Report’s journalism on higher education inequality. But last week I had the opportunity to ask him about his latest recommendations and how and if he sees any chance of improving this landscape as the coronavirus shutters campuses and forces students online.

Those recommendations include improving college and career counseling and evaluating colleges on whether students find good jobs and ascend the economic ladder, instead of their selectivity in admissions and the academic profile of their incoming class. The book also calls for ending legacy admissions, ensuring that colleges enroll at least 20 percent of their students from low-income families, and treating high school, college and career training as one system.

Will a backdrop of economic ruin prompt higher education to listen to feedback on how to become more accountable, flexible and accessible? Or will a new era of big budget cuts at public universities, along with enormous pressures on already struggling four-year liberal arts institutions, make college even more expensive and elusive for students from low-income and middle-class families?

The answer is a little of both, Carnevale explained. He called the virus “something of a moment of judgment for higher education, a shock that will accelerate [negative] trends that are already underway,” as well as one that could finally open the door for systemic policy change.

“The majority of college students today are not 18- to 22-year olds, and colleges need to begin to cater more to the lifelong learner, the adult learner, and certainly in this economy, individuals who need to retrain and re-skill for the next generation of jobs.”

– Ted Mitchell, president, American Council on Education

Higher education has been “headed for a cliff,” he said, propelled there by increasing public cynicism about the return on investment of tuition and by demographic shifts that caused enrollment to decline. Even before coronavirus pressures emerged, colleges were giving away more than half of their revenue in the form of discounts and financial aid, just to fill seats.

That could give some of his book’s recommendations a better chance, especially those reform ideas that create more transparency about results, or aim to align higher education with the workforce. “I think it will force building bridges in the public high school-to-college system,” Carnevale said.

He also spoke about an idea to which he gives a lot of attention in the book: transforming our education system from K-12 to K-14, or, as he puts it, “make 14 the new 12.” Carnevale  believes that combining high school and the first two years of college, with direct pathways to boost the workforce and the economy, can help forge a middle ground between an antiquated vocational track in high school and new calls for free college.

Sophie Fogel, a high school senior in Buffalo, New York, was looking forward to campus life at the University of Pittsburgh this fall, but will try to defer if instruction is online.

Approximately half a million U.S. students who graduate in the top half of their high school class never go onto earn a postsecondary credential, costing the country some $400 billion in annual income they might have earned, the book notes.

It also argues that, in their race for prestige, colleges are in many ways focusing on the wrong students, doling out merit aid to the those who can afford to attend without help and recruiting students they’ll never admit to appear more competitive and move up in the rankings.

The need to widen their recruitment and focus is a point American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell made during an Axios webinar I listened to last week. “Other institutions are going to need to be more creative about expanding who they think of as their students,” he said. “The majority of college students today are not 18- to 22-year olds, and colleges need to begin to cater more to the lifelong learner, the adult learner, and certainly in this economy, individuals who need to retrain and reskill for the next generation of jobs.”

And there are added pressures now as colleges weigh whether to welcome students back to campus or continue online instruction. Some 10 percent of high school seniors who were planning to attend a four-year college or university before the pandemic now say they’re going to do something else, the consulting firm SimpsonScarborough reports. One of them is Sophie Fogel, a high school senior in Buffalo, New York, who had been looking forward to college life at the University of Pittsburgh this fall.

Pitt hasn’t said yet if it will welcome students back to campus, but if it doesn’t, Fogel says she’ll apply for a gap year. If the school denies that, she’ll withdraw and apply to colleges all over again next year, she told me.

A stunning 65 percent of people aged 18 to 24 have changed their education plans amid the coronavirus, according to a recent Strada Education Network survey.

“I do not want to take classes online and I don’t want to miss out on football games and the whole college experience,” Fogel said. She’s in good company within her age group: a stunning 65 percent of people aged 18 to 24 have changed their education plans amid the coronavirus, according to a recent Strada Education Network survey.

Carnevale also spoke about another pressing recommendation for change, one we’ve been writing about via our partnership with the documentary film Personal Statement: the lack of counselors to help students navigate school, apply to college and map out careers.

“The missing link is counseling, starting in middle school,” Carnevale said, noting that counselors should be well versed in everything from college costs to different kinds of loans, guided by data about careers and colleges, and dedicated to what students, not institutions, need.

And Carnevale sees hope when it comes to another subject described in his book: helping students transfer from one college or program to another, while slashing arbitrary bureaucratic requirements hindering their choices. “Transfer agreements will become much more important because they have to,” Carnevale said.

Related: With higher-ed in limbo, students are switching to community colleges

Much of what we spoke about will hinge on how and when campuses reopen and who wins the November presidential election, as well as the extent of the decimation to state budgets and the scale of the cuts to publicly financed colleges.

But changes in some areas, like college admissions policies, could happen now. We’re already seeing more institutions drop SAT and ACT exam requirements – a move Carnevale applauds.

He wants the government to insist that selective colleges direct more financial aid to low-income students and admit more students who receive Pell grants. But he is also realistic enough to know that many colleges may have a whole lot less financial aid available for those students.

And while Carnevale predicts that overall “the elite system is going to get a kick in the pants,” he doesn’t believe they’ll be terribly hurt. If less competitive and under-resourced colleges start disappearing, competition to get in will only increase for the top institutions, he predicts.

Even amid economic chaos, there will always be highly educated parents who make enough to send their kids to the most coveted institutions, and far more applicants than such schools can admit. Princeton University, for example, this year admitted only 1,896 students from among 32,804 applicants; Georgetown University had its third year in a row of record-low acceptance rates.

“In the elite schools there will be growth,” he predicts.

The daunting competition colleges love to brag about already left a door open for anxious celebrities and wealthy parents to lie, cheat and encourage audacious scams, like photo-shopped athletic profiles.

As we await long-needed change and policy reforms, it will be fascinating to see what kind of opportunities are made of the greatest crisis ever faced by higher education.

This story on higher education crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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