Getting into college

  • How first-generation students learn about the myth of meritocracy.
- Jennine Capó Crucet

Mar 19, 2019-

As a first-generation college student, I was always told that college was a place you had to earn your way into and that once you got there, the playing field was totally equal. I saw the admissions process as a kind of sorting procedure, one based solely on merit.

I bought into that lie big time, which meant I worked my butt off at an underperforming, overcrowded Miami public high school, cramming for advanced placement exams, graduating as valedictorian and becoming the president of almost every school club from the National Honor Society to the Premedical Honor Society (spoiler alert: I didn’t become a doctor). When I was accepted at Cornell—the only out-of-state school I could afford to apply to—I sent off my deposit, ready for my hard-earned reward: college itself.

Early in my first semester, I found myself in a dining hall sitting across from a fellow first-year student, a white woman from a New York suburb. We were having the kind of awkward lunch that characterizes those first days of college, when you’re wondering if someone could be a friend. As we picked over our pasta, she joked about her mediocre math grades in high school, mentioning that though her school offered them, she’d never taken any A.P. classes. I choked on some soggy macaroni: I’d taken more than a dozen since my sophomore year in high school, because that’s what I was told it took to earn a spot at a school like Cornell. How, then, had she managed to get in?

I asked her that exact question, between bites, because I hadn’t yet learned that these things aren’t talked about so openly at schools like this. She said, “I’m a legacy.” I asked what that meant—it was the first time I’d ever heard someone describe themselves that way, and it sounded as if she was about to reveal that she was an alien or part of a “Terminator”-esque army.

She explained that several generations of her family had gone to Cornell and that her family had, for decades, made large donations to the school. I’d never heard of legacy admissions, or development admissions, where donations to the school can help a student’s chances, or any of the other euphemisms for what seemed to an outsider like me to be buying your way into college.

“Don’t you feel bad that that’s why you got in?” I said. I stopped short of accusing her of what other students would tell me: You didn’t really earn your spot.

This clear bias, based on wealth and so often tied to whiteness, doesn’t strike students, their families or college administrators as inherently unfair and even dishonest. It doesn’t seem unfair in the way that the bribery and fraud exposed in last week’s college admissions scandal—“Operation Varsity Blues,” which I really hope will soon be a Netflix documentary narrated by James Van Der Beek—so clearly is. Mega-rich families have been buying their way into college for decades through completely legal, even tax-deductible, schemes.

A decade or so after that lunch, while working at a nonprofit as a college access counselor to low-income first-generation college students like me, I made sure to tell them about legacy and development admissions. I told them about application coaches - how parents spent millions on services that all but guaranteed admission into the country’s best schools, and that colleges didn’t generally require anyone to disclose that they used those services. I wanted my students to know what they were up against, and I also wanted them to realize how much more they belonged on whatever campus was lucky enough to snag them than the students who’d essentially bought their way in.

I did not want them to learn about this unfair system the way I did, sitting in stunned silence across from a girl who laughed at how little I knew about how the world really worked. I had sincerely believed that when I stepped on campus I was leaving an unfair system behind, going to a place where my mind was valued more than what my parents did for a living. No one in my family had gone to college, so no one could tell me otherwise. That was as big a lie as the other false promise I tried to dispel for my first-generation students, with less success: that college automatically leads to the kind of material wealth that lets you someday—on behalf of your own children—legally cheat the system you’d once been up against.

I reminded my students that a college degree is one of the fastest ways to break the cycle of poverty in a family. And that’s exactly why the college admissions process—with its overreliance on scores from tests that are widely regarded as biased against low-income students, students of color and students from single-parent households—is designed to let as few of us in as it can: Why invest in us when there could be a bigger payoff, in future donations, for that same spot?

I learned too late that college was never a meritocracy and that it was not a prize: It was an extension of the same uneven playing field that created a campus where very few of its students looked and lived as I did. Part of me is glad I didn’t know, because I worry such knowledge might have discouraged me from working to get admitted in the first place.

Sometimes, though, when I think about that lonely lunch, I wish I’d understood right away how much more I had achieved by making it to that dining hall than the girl sitting across from me had. How she should have been the one questioning whether she deserved to be there. How she had no idea that it should have been me doing the laughing.

— © 2019 The New York Times

Published: 19-03-2019 10:54

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