A Recent High School Grad Reflects on the Clamor Over College Admissions

by Diana Drake

Some of you will recognize the name Sid Muralidhar. Sid, 18, was the leader of last year’s KWHS Investment Competition team All You Can Eat Buffett from Virginia, which took first place in Region 3 and the Global Finale of our competition. Sid went to the No. 1 high school in the country, had above a 4.0 weighted GPA, took 13 AP credits and received a 4 or 5 on all the AP exams, got a 1540 on his first and only attempt at the SAT, and published three research papers in professional investment journals, among other accolades (like winning our global competition). Sid is now a freshman at Virginia Tech and we reached out to him for his opinions on the recent college admissions scandal, which he has expressed below.”

When the recent college admissions scandal broke, I didn’t react the way I usually do when the Wall Street Journal Breaking News alert popped up on my phone. “Parents and students using money and influence to sway the college admissions decision process.” Not at all surprising, I thought.

When I was applying to colleges, I knew of people who paid well to give them an edge. Some shelled out thousands of dollars to hire private tutors for “personalized standardized test prep” help; others hired editors and professionals to write their kids’ college essays; and still others had coaches write letters of recommendation for them, even though the applicants had no intention of playing on the college team once they arrived on campus.

While what I experienced was not the stuff of headline news or, by most standards, illegal, it was more related than many might dare to admit to the recent allegations of rich CEOs and celebrities paying for bribes to get their kids into elite universities.

The college admissions process, and college itself, has become less of a system designed to identify talent and nurture that talent in a mutually beneficial way, than a “pay-to-play” system benefiting the affluent and uber-wealthy.

Less-well-off individuals are unable to compete in a process where private Ivy League tutors cost at least $200 an hour and college-coaching firms can cost up to $40,000.

But the issue is more systemic.

Andrew Lelling, United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said in his press conference announcing Operation Varsity Blues, that “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy.” His statement gave me hope for an injection of integrity into the troubled system. But that was too good to be true. Not even a couple minutes later he continued with, “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter.”

What? That is precisely the definition of a completely “separate college admissions system for the wealthy!” It is safe to assume that the average American does not have enough money lying around to donate a building. We need only look at the recent U.S. government shutdown and the wave of financial strife into which it pushed the average federal worker who wasn’t able to collect a paycheck for more than a month.

“As a business student, I joke with my friends that the greatest business ever created is the American college education system. But the joke isn’t funny.” — Sid Muralidhar

In Harvard’s case, some interesting statistics have come out from the lawsuit that claims that the school intentionally discriminated against Asian-American applicants. The suit was filed in 2014 and debated in a final round of arguments last month.

According to the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s acceptance rate has fallen and been capped below 6% over the last four years. Meanwhile, their acceptance rate for legacy students is around 34%; their acceptance rate for donors is around 40%; and their acceptance rate for students whose parents are Harvard alumni and donors is more than 70%! While one could make the argument that those who come from Harvard-educated families could be more qualified as a result of the environment in which they have been raised, according to a study done by College Admit Me in 2018, accepted legacy students average fewer than 100 points more on their SAT scores than the average accepted non-legacy student. I refuse to believe being a legacy student is deserving of a 5x, 7x, or 12x multiple in qualifications. This is clearly not a meritocracy. I could be biased because I know a lot of these families.

While we may defend colleges’ right to select their students on whatever criteria they wish, including family wealth, we then should not defend their right to have non-profit status in an era in which schools have more than $30 billion endowments [donation of money or property to a nonprofit organization]. It just isn’t right.

As a business student, I joke with my friends that the greatest business ever created is the American college education system. But the joke isn’t funny. Colleges flagrantly take advantage of their prestige and market demand by increasing their tuition rates several multiples over wage growth and inflation. Once again, who gets hurt the most? The less wealthy, who then end up thousands of dollars in debt that takes years, and often decades, to pay off. Student debt hinders a person’s ability to make big financial decisions like buying a house or car and is linked to depression — students don’t stop paying the price once they leave college.

I might see some advantages to rising college price tags if the resulting windfall was used to advance education. That is what parents and students are seemingly paying for, is it not? But take a look at the billions of dollars going towards building a water park or lazy river on campus [at Texas Tech and the University of Missouri, to name a few]. And once again, who is the cost pushed onto? Students have to pay for a “higher quality” of life in the form of higher tuition and higher “student activity fees.”

When asked for my reaction to the recent college admissions scandal, it was not one of surprise, confusion, or anger. Until there is a real shock to the system, a gut punch, nothing will change. Colleges will continue to swim in money, as if they are Fortune 500 companies; the affluent will continue to receive a 10-lap handicap; and poorer students will continue to be pushed off into the deep end and left to drown in debt.

Maybe some good will come out of this scandal, even beyond the elevated conversations about college access that have been flooding traditional and social media. I hope proactive students will be inspired to fight for change in a system that so many of us participate in and value.

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Conversation Starters

Sid’s shared his opinion, now you share yours. How did you react when you heard about the scandal? How do you feel about the higher education system in America? Do you think it’s rigged? Be sure to read the linked KWHS article on the recent scandal for further perspective.

How does student loan debt relate to this issue? What about legacy students? What does Sid mean when he says this is clearly not a meritocracy? Choose one of the many issues raised in this article (there are more than those listed) and debate it with a partner.

Do you agree or disagree with Sid Muralidhar? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this article. Chances are, Sid will respond to your comments!

6 comments on “A Recent High School Grad Reflects on the Clamor Over College Admissions

  1. Predictable…

    That was the first word that came to mind in early March of 2019 when I first heard about the college scandals going on all around the United States.

    While on one hand, we look at those parents who paid extreme amounts of money for their kids to get accepted into top universities with disgust, for them trying to gain the system, there is an opposing viewpoint that, although I don’t agree with, feel should be considered.

    The fact of the matter is, parents love their children and want what’s best for them. Period.
    Parents go to far measures, most especially when they’re tired and drained, to make their children happy, just out of sheer love for them. So then why, you may ask, would a parent risk possibly ruining their child’s life, just to get them into a top college? Just because you don’t go to an Ivy League school, doesn’t mean that you’re life is over, right?

    Wrong…or at least it is to some students – like myself – who feel like they need to get into a top school or else all their hard work in high school won’t have been worth it. Who feel like if they don’t go to their dream school then they are going to end up homeless. Who feel like if they don’t get into a top university then their parents won’t love them anymore. Here is where THEY are really, really wrong…

    In today’s world, with the extreme pressure that is put upon students entering high school, teenagers are pushed to their limits both mentally and physically. Anxiety and depression take over their lives when they think that they don’t have time for a social life because studying for Monday’s possible pop quiz is more important than going out with you’re friends. All they do is school, study, sleep, repeat. An unheatlhy and definitely unsustainable lifestyle, noticed by a majority of parents.

    Now here is where we get back to the opposing viewpoint. With the amount of love that parents have for their kids, it puts them in pain to see their children suffering from high school’s rigorous workload. The only thing that millenials can remember about high school was that it was “the time of their lives”. And, knowing how much pressure their children put on themselves, parents want to be able to make their kids less worried about college in any way possible. While it may be wrong, many parents tried to take stress out of their children’s lives by using their wealth and bribing their kids’ ways into college. Despite the fact that this is unethical and completely unfair to others, it is caused by the tunnelvision of love that a parent has for their child. They aren’t thinking about the consequences of what might happen as a result; parents are only thinking of how quickly they can help lift stress of the shoulders of their children.

    In a similar case, I once met, and kept in touch with, a girl at tennis camp who seemed very down to earth and was easily going to be recruited to play D1 tennis in the coming years. However, through the grapevine, I heard that she was part of the college admissions scandal and that her father (who turned out to be a multimillionaire), payed hundreds of thousands of dollars for her child’s standardized test scoring to be improved. Why? Not because she wasn’t intelligent or she needed higher scores to get into college. But simply because of the fact that his daughter had extreme anxiety during standardized testing. In the case when she would have scored twice as high on a normal test, she performs bellow average on a standardized one. She had no idea what was going on behind her back, but the father only wanted to lessen the immense pressure that lied on her shoulders, out of love for a child.

    And again, while I completely understand that these parents all attacked their kid’s problems in an unethical and unjustifiable way, their goal wasn’t to harm anybody else in the process, but to take some pressure out of the lives of their children.

    I’d love to hear any responses to my viewpoint!

    • I not only strongly agree with Brian’s reflection of the college scandals, but also closely personify with the experiences he draws from. Whether it’s the random calls throughout the day from my mom reminding me to take my SAT practice test, or the long conversations with my dad about how random my areas of interests are, for the past few years it seems as if my parents have completely fixed their life to getting me into college. Sometimes, I wonder if there is any topic other than college my parents want to discuss.

      I’m sixteen.

      I just finished my sophomore year of high school and I barely know the difference between jam and jelly, yet I’m expected to know what and where to study and do for the rest of my life. I should be hanging out with friends, watching Criminal Minds, or eating ice cream on a beach, not learning Spanish grammar, researching for papers, or doing two SAT tests a day during the summer.

      The pressure is undoubtedly on students in the status quo to perform in college applications following one of the most cut-throat admissions cycles yet. With hundreds of thousands of qualified applicants gunning for extremely limited spots, it has never been harder to get into college.

      To this point, I disagree with your point presented in consideration of how the parents of those who turn to unethical ways to get their kids into college “don’t mean any harm.” While I also would like to adopt the same viewpoint in respect of the parents simply trying to help, in reality, every parent wants to help their child get into the best college they can. Yet, this doesn’t mean that we see every parent turning to unethical ways to make this happen. It’s the respect for other students that are just as worthy, if not worthy, for that spot that forces parents to play by the rules. While these parents that cut corners don’t explicitly “mean harm,” by making the conscious decision to cheat the system and take the easy way out, parents that end up getting their child to the institution of their liking took someone else’s spot at that institution. Someone just as passionate. Someone just as driven. Someone that played by the rules. However, at the end of the day, cutting someone else’s opportunities to the college of their dreams may be an act of love for some parents, I consider it one that is unfair, unethical, and immoral.

      Do I wish I could be hanging out with friends, watching Criminal Minds, or swimming in the ocean? Absolutely. But as a person who doesn’t have the privilege nor the resources to simply “pay” my way into the college I want to be a part of, I have no choice but to work ten times harder. If that means doing Spanish tutoring over the summer or doing two practice SATs a day, then so be it. At least it’s not a wad of money.

  2. There is nothing better than the feeling of looking forward to something. The meticulous planning that goes into it. The rush of adrenaline when you imagine yourself there. The fantasizing about what could happen. But what makes this feeling indescribably wonderful, is simply sharing it with a friend.

    That’s how it was when my friend and I were preparing to go to the NSDA National Debate tournament, the largest debate tournament of the year. This weeklong event marked the finale of the debate season, and this particular year it was being held in Birmingham, Alabama. After the immense joy of qualifying for this tournament subsided, our thoughts immediately moved towards the future. It was months away, but we wasted no time eagerly planning, restlessly imagining, and ambitiously fantasizing about our first time attending NSDA National tournament. It would be the pinnacle of our young debate careers. The upperclassmen always brought up the spectacular memories they made, we had discussed the possibility of qualifying the entire year, and despite the difficulty of qualifying as a freshman, we had made it. Needless to say, we couldn’t wait.

    And yet we did. Months became weeks, and weeks became days, until finally – I received a call from my friend three days before the trip.

    “I can’t go.”

    My stomach dropped. My throat tightened. My head spun.

    “Why?” I managed to croak out.

    “Why??” I said more forcefully.

    “My-my dad can’t pay for it, I’m sorry.”

    It it is easy for those who are fortunate to assume that the students who walk the halls beside them every day have the same opportunities as them. That we’re all aiming for the same things and facing the same obstacles. I was one of those students.

    But this experience opened my eyes. One of my closest friends was playing an entirely different game with a completely different set of rules this whole time, and I was oblivious. Throughout all the hours that went into planning our moments at this tournament, and even preparing for the actual debates, my friend was carrying an anchor that I did not have. A giant question mark. Behind all the smiles and laughs, he wasn’t sure if he would even be able to attend the tournament for a reason that was completely out of his control. A debater who was talented enough to qualify as a freshman, is unable to do what he loves because he didn’t have enough money.

    Financial means to participate in extracurriculars I love and pursue a passion I have is something I took for granted. But the reality is, socioeconomic barriers close many doors for many students. Often times, joining academic extracurriculars like speech and debate, FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America), math clubs, and HOSA (Health Occupations Student Association) aren’t even a consideration for these students. After all, the students who do these activities have enough money for multiple sets of professional attire, have enough money to attend camps over summer, have enough money to fly to faraway competitions and conferences. For the student who works a part-time job to put food on the table for his family, “following his/her passion” is a distant fantasy. As a result, we lose potential debaters, potential student leaders, potential mathletes, and potential biology nerds. Even worse, that means society loses potential policymakers, potential businessmen/businesswomen, potential scientists, and potential doctors.

    Sid highlights a pressing issue of our time when he says the wealthy are operating under a completely separate admissions system. While he’s referring to the scandals the wealthy are getting away with, as well as the legal methods they have of gaining a significant edge, I believe that the root of the problem is even deeper. Yes, there is aw small percentage of wealthy families who have an edge over the rest of us, as they do in many aspects of life, but often overlooked is the edge the rest of us have over the very low-income. Nowadays, the college admission process wants students who pursue their passion, who flourish and excel at what they love. But that’s not possible for many underprivileged students. It’s not even a consideration.

    This is why I started the BestFit Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the socioeconomic barriers that many students face in pursuing their extracurriculars. By collecting formal clothing donations and fundraising for scholarships, we enable many students to participate in activities that they never thought they would have the opportunity for. Formal attire is often expensive, yet it is required for many academic activities like speech and debate, FBLA, and HOSA. By providing attire to students who couldn’t afford them, we have opened the gate for many students to attend their first debate competition, or leadership conference, and we have even seen students use them for job interviews. On top of that, our scholarships have enabled students to attend out-of-state debate tournaments, large national summer camps, and leadership conferences across the country.

    Our efforts have provided $20,000 worth of professional attire to hundreds of students and $5,000 of scholarships to 15 students. But the numbers speak less to the impact we have made than the personal interactions I have had with these students. Each one of them are passionate and driven, and I have realized that all it takes is one door opened to change the course of a student’s life.

    For students like my friend, the college admissions process is an uphill battle. But that’s just a symptom of a greater problem with society: the socioeconomic inequity that determines the fate of many. As a more fortunate individual, I have an obligation to do what I can to address this issue, and I will continue to do everything I can. But this is not a problem any individual can solve alone; we need to bring awareness to the problem so society can work together to find a solution.

    Thank you to Sid and the KWHS for this provocative and reflective article! I hope my narrative added another perspective on the topic of college admissions.

  3. Sid brought up many excellent points about the enormous role that privilege plays in the college admissions process. To summarize, the credibility of college admissions is tainted by the favoritism shown towards students that come from wealthy families. Being wealthy gives students access to many services that can increase their chances of acceptance, including standardized testing prep, essay assistance, and special recommendations. In addition, students with parents that are alumni and/or donors of the school have exponentially higher chances of acceptance. These points illustrate the inequity of the college admissions system. Socio-economic privilege too often becomes the final decider of which students are accepted by a college.

    To add on to Sid’s points, I think that the flaws of this system will be seen in far more than just college admissions. It’s possible that the favoritism towards the wealthy that can be seen in the college admissions process will affect social and class mobility in America. Wealthier students have an inherent advantage over less wealthy students because they will likely have to work less during college to support themselves, and they will have lower amounts of debt after graduation. This uneven playing field will continue to put wealthy students at the top and less wealthy students at the bottom, thus perpetuating the cycle of class and making it nearly impossible to break.

  4. I think Sid Muralidhar’s essay is very insightful and thought-provoking. Throughout the article, Sid sheds light on the recent college admissions scandal and its broader implications. It’s disheartening to see how unfair advantages are prevalent in the college admissions process. The disparity between affluent individuals and those from less privileged backgrounds is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. I am, however, intrigued by how he recognized the nepotism system, “pay to play,” while further examining the issues of legacy admissions and questioning the meritocracy of the process. It is also concerning to see how colleges divert funds to non-educational amenities while tuition fees continue to soar. I agree with Sid that this scandal should inspire proactive students to challenge the existing system.

  5. Universities in the U.S. encompass innumerable criteria when considering a student’s admission. A few aspects known to be the most crucial are GPA, SAT scores, and extracurriculars. To earn the opportunity of getting admitted to their dream school, every student strives to bring the spotlight among thousands and millions of other thrivers. However, in order to be granted an opportunity to get accepted, they have to face the bitter reality that immense financial support is demanded mainly for consultation and preparation academies. I truly agree with your opinion, Sid, that there is a stark disparity between affluent and less privileged students. The pay-to-play plays a vital role in the admissions process, getting priority compared to other applicants.

    According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, “70% of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white, and being a legacy student makes an applicant roughly six times more likely to be admitted.” Even though Affirmative action was initiated, there was nothing in reality that decreased the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. The affirmative action, first established to consider applicants “without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation…” took a dark turn in failure regardless of the seemingly wholesome action. This served as a piece of major evidence that consolidated the statement of money corresponding to the chances granted in the admission.

    We can’t deny that the financial status of a student and his or her family affects the admission pathways, and equal opportunities for all have a long way to go in order to be a reality for all students. Some people pay for seats in college, and legacy admissions continue its legacy in many colleges and universities across the nation. A stigma that our society is by the rich, for the rich, and of the rich and that the haves benefit most from society will be hard to erase unless the college admission process can identify eligible qualifications that are not determined by the financial status of a student and his or her family.

    We are currently living in a world where not only money can make us accepted to our dream university but also go away with blood on our hands. Money is the priority now, not the people. It is not the person itself that is viewed as the most important in admissions but the numbers. No matter how hard you try to exceed the standards of eligibility, you will get slammed in the face without receiving a chance at the admissions process if there are no qualifications, which can hardly be given without financial investment.

    It costs a lot to enroll in SAT prep academies, and AP courses, build skills to apply for internships and contests, and, most importantly, pay for college tuition without financial aid. Oh, by the way, international students have to pay more tuition than residents and citizens. Sometimes, I feel bad for my parents to bear the cross of the financial burden, which partly motivates me to work harder than other students. However, I do believe that successful qualifications take a bold investment.

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