College admissions – the high price of higher education

The indictments of celebrities and CEOs in a sweeping FBI investigation into a college admissions scandal has raised questions about the advantages – on both sides of the law – that exist for the children of moneyed parents.

Beyond bribes and admissions fraud, a network of legal options has long existed for parents who aim to leverage their wealth into their children’s success.

“You can turn wealth and money into better higher education,” Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said. “By the time some of these kids are applying to college, their resume, quite frankly, looks better than mine.”

The advantages begin at birth, Reeves said. Families who have the means can afford private schools or the costs of moving to a district with elite public schools — a cost working class families often struggle to bear.

It means that if you win the lottery of birth, you’re going to be way more college ready at 18 than a kid born into a less affluent background.

— Richard Reeves

Reeves says that school choice, coupled with private tutoring and test preparation, gives the students a demonstrable advantage before they’ve even begun applying to elite institutions.

“It means that if you win the lottery of birth, you’re going to be way more college ready at 18 than a kid born into a less affluent background,” Reeves said.

Coming from a family of means is the first in a series of cascading advantages and tools that wealthy parents leverage for their children’s benefit.

Private test preparation for K-12 students in the United States is an $8.29 billion industry, according to the market research firm Technavio. The industry, which is legal, often helps students understand how to take standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT, and develop test-taking strategies.

Even institutions like The New York Times cash in on the college prep meal ticket. The legacy newspaper charges between $5,150 and $5,750 for its two-week summer program, The School of The New York Times. Reeves said wealthy families use extracurricular activities like this to separate their children from the pack when applying to colleges.

Private K-12 schools in New York City often have tuition rates that mirror or even exceed their Ivy League counterparts. The Trinity School costs more than $52,000 per academic year. Riverdale will run a family as much as $54,000. The Brearley School costs $49,000.

Harvard University’s tuition, by comparison, costs more than $46,000 without fees, room and board. After tallying those expenses, students can expect to spend upwards of $67,000.

One tutoring industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his New York City clientele, said families of all economic backgrounds spend money on their kids’ education, but it’s more prevalent among families who can afford the extra investment.

A specific tool often used by parents hoping to get their children special academic attention is neuropsychological evaluations, which test for learning disabilities or other deficiencies – and can be used to secure extra time or special proctors on standardized tests. This was a key tool utilized in the admission scam.

“It’s the kind of thing that is going to be used more by people with resources and time,” he said. “Both for its impact on your ability to get extra time on a test and ability to get custom tutoring.”

Often, the testing is used to help legitimize mental illnesses or learning disabilities that keep them from performing as well as they could. Huffman, Loughlin and the other defendants allegedly used neuropsychological tests to fraudulently obtain extra time for their kids, or their stand-ins, to take their ACT and SAT tests.

Most often, the insider said parents and students use his services to prepare for standardized tests and entrance exams. The rates of his company run about $150 per hour, which is higher than average but not exorbitant.

On the high end are places like Advantage Testing, which charges anywhere from $550 to $1590 per session for test preparation, according to an employee who answered the phone when Fox News called. She said most of the students who engage their services are looking to gain admission to Ivy League schools.

“A huge part of the work we do is working with kids from private schools who are looking for test prep and academic support,” the industry insider said.

Of course, there still exists more apparent outright quid pro quo in higher education than test preparation or private tutoring. One such potential example is the $2.5 million donated to Harvard University by Charles Kushner shortly before his son, Jared, was accepted.

The admissions to our elite colleges is softly corrupt, and if not illegal, in many cases, immoral.

— Richard Reeves

Also jumping the steadily-decreasing line for acceptance are “legacy” students, whose parents and grandparents attended the elite school to which their offspring applies.

The 2021 class at Harvard is comprised of legacy students at a startling rate – nearly 30 percent of the class is descended from Harvard alumni. Compared with their record low acceptance rate of just 5 percent in 2015-2016, you have a picture of access by way of bloodline.

The myriad ways in which the wealthy game the college admission system “blows the lid off the idea that these are meritocratic systems,” according to Reeves.

“The admissions to our elite colleges is softly corrupt, and if not illegal, in many cases, immoral,” he said.

In the zero-sum game where every student who is admitted negates one who is not, Reeves said college admissions beg the question of who the elite institutions exist to serve. Legacy admissions, expensive college test preparation and private tutoring help these admissions act as a “farm team” for tomorrow’s elite.

What elite schools gain in endowments and donations that pave the way for wealthy students to follow their parents’ paths, they lose in diversity of experience, region and background, Reeves said.

“I think they’re missing a very important element of diversity, which is diversity of experience and diversity of background,” he said.

Reeves, who explored the growing inequality between the upper middle class and the rest of America in his book “Dream Hoarders,” said these institutions can exist to cultivate groups of tomorrow’s leaders that look and feel like the rest of the country, or they can continue to serve exclusively the same elite families they have for decades.

Increasingly, regular Americans are feeling ostracized from higher education. A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 58 percent of Republicans feel that colleges have a negative impact on the country. This cuts to the heart of the admissions scandal, where Reeves said the indicted parents may have felt they weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary to give their kids an advantage.

“This scandal cast a light on how much these institutions are serving the elite rather than serving America,” he said.

Fox News’ Lydia Culp contributed to this report.