Although the details of a college admissions cheating scandal are titillating (photoshopped pole vaulters, anyone?) nobody is shocked to learn that exceptionally wealthy people play by different rules. Many commentators have pointed out that the ultra-rich already legally pay for access to top schools (why engage in an illegal scam when you can slap your name on a building in broad daylight?). Across social media, students and their families admitted into college “on their own merit” expressed outrage that these folks robbed ordinary applicants of an even shake. This reaction ignores the structures of privilege and power that affect both college admissions and the college experience. We need to talk about that.
As professors who have worked with thousands of college students, we understand that no incoming college class is binary — divided between self-made scholars who bootstrapped their way to move-in day and the children of celebrities and donors. Today’s college communities reflect a wider array of social class, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and geography than a generation ago (though economic diversity at top-tier schools is decreasing and some elite schools, including Yale and Georgetown, have more students who come from the top one percent than the bottom 60).
Most students attend high schools that lack diversity. Today, school districts have become more economically and racially segregated than they were 40 years ago. And high school doesn’t prepare students to live and learn in communities with so much difference.
We’ve seen how challenging the transition from home and high school is. Academic expectations are higher (and often mysterious), parents aren’t there to provide support, and students must master what they call “adulting” on the fly. But being in college is more than knowing how to eat, sleep, and support your claims with credible sources. College is a learning community where your education comes not only from faculty, but from interactions with peers. Our professional experience shows us that preparation to live and learn in this community is both essential and lacking. That’s why we advise incoming students to learn about their college peers before arriving on campus. This includes the percentage of students receiving financial aid; how many identify as first-generation; whether they come from public or private schools; if they are international students; and how they identify by factors such as race, religion, and gender identity.
Although student and adolescent development theories shows that many aspects of the first-year of college are nearly universal, our students’ differences affect their college experience significantly. Take, for example, student jobs. Some students work at restaurants or retail to pay their way. Students with greater means have the freedom to build their resumes and get ahead in the job market by taking unpaid internships, which serve to undermine meritocracy by excluding candidates who can't work for free. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that a college degree does not deliver the economic mobility many people believe it should (particularly for African American students).
Some differences are far subtler, but still alter a student’s ability to grow and thrive in college. It could mean that for the first time, people around you have trouble pronouncing your name. Or that you are unable to find the family foods you are accustomed to, or find someone who knows how to cut your hair. These cultural and financial differences matter. Although more students from low-income families are starting college than ever before, they are far less likely to graduate than their wealthier classmates, regardless of their test scores.
College isn’t easy for anyone, but the absence of these barriers which have a tangible impact on college success, is called privilege. Say it with us.
High schools, colleges, and families need to talk openly about the reality of privilege, which not only affects the continuum of access to college admission, but also the college experience itself.
Understanding this diversity of experience affects how students become accustomed to and function in a community that cuts across that continuum. Imagine a student is planning to study for an exam with a classmate. Would she assume her new friend can go to a restaurant for dinner? The answer depends on many factors, including if the student can budget to eat off the pre-paid meal plan. In fact, up to half of the nation’s college students might struggle with food insecurity (a shocking figure that seems obvious once we remember that 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to cover an emergency expense).
This potential clash of expectations affects our students every day. We’ve heard from many of them who regret caving to pressure to spend money they didn’t have because of the default assumption among college students that their peers are middle class. We’ve also heard students with more limited means express shock about the advantages their new classmates have- from the ability to work an unpaid internship to access to a parent’s credit card.
There’s no question that these experiences color the college experience; it’s on us — families, universities and communities — to prepare students for them. To do so, we need to say the P-word: privilege. The P-word feels threatening to many students and families who’ve worked hard to earn access to college for themselves and their students. (Anyone who’s ever parented a real, non-photo-shopped student athlete knows these kids work hard and their families sacrifice a lot to support their endeavors.) But privilege isn’t binary, with extreme haves and have nots. All of our students are have-somes. And just as they need to know where the student union and health center are on their new campus, they need to know where they fall along the continuum of access to power and privilege.