Students who aspire to attend competitive colleges are rightly horrified by the thought that years of hard work to build one’s college credentials can get shut out by a rich student with a conniving family. The GOOD news does not make headlines against the small salacious exceptions, but here it is.

Merit Over Money

money and books on a scaleFor the last four decades, elite colleges have truly opened up MANY slots for students of merit. No longer does the unqualified student from a tony prep school gain admission to an Ivy League university. No longer do colleges assessing the not-so-assiduous child of an alumnus take the chance on admitting him despite high drop-out potential.

Colleges’ general replacement of MERIT instead of MONEY owes to three large factors: the college officials’ desire to place high in the rankings, the influence of the SAT and the burgeoning pool of qualified applicants.

  1. Rankings, particularly the “Gold Standard” U.S. News rankings, sway colleges’ alumni solicitations, faculty hiring and admissions decisions. U.S. News weighs quality of student using class rankings and SAT/ACT scores. Higher GPA and higher SAT scores are measurable and colleges play to it. “Willard has fine character”, and other subjective claims about matriculated students, gain no place in the U.S. News rankings.
  2. The SAT and ACT make “merit” manifest. A college can instantly point to its students’ average scores as a stand-in for a meritorious class.
  3. Because there are so many well-educated students, including international students, clamoring for places at elite American colleges, the colleges compete with one another by landing students of merit. Elite colleges boast of their number of valedictorians (high GPA) and number of 1600s (perfect SAT scores).

In sum, elite colleges need students of merit more than they need money. This is why they go out of their way to offer high amounts of financial aid, sometimes even paying in full PLUS a stipend for an extremely talented student to attend.

Yes, there are still admits based on “big donations”. But they are few and far between. And the donation level now needs to be high. That’s GOOD for the ordinary student, because a college that admits a less-meritorious student whose family pays $5,000,000 now has money to fund twenty places for truly meritorious students. This rarely means the college will expand its number of places, but it means bright students who need scholarship money can now attend.

The greatest expander of opportunities to attend elite universities is OPM: Other People’s Money. Their donated wealth has allowed college endowments to grow larger. Harvard has such a large endowment that it can afford to be “need-blind” and let any admitted student whose parents earn under $65,000 a year to attend for free, including books, room and meals. Dartmouth allows any domestic student whose parents earn less than $100,000 annually to attend without paying tuition.

The second greatest expander for students with modest means is the near-elimination of the “P”s: primping – whether you look just right to an alumnus, poise – whether you act and sound right to an interviewer, and pedigree – whether you come from the “right” background. Fifty years ago, primping, poise and pedigree were an inherent advantage to the students attending a boarding school and students whose summers were spent at country clubs. Today, the kid who spends 10 weeks of summer golfing at dad’s club has a black mark on his application.

How to Get Accepted on Merit

The universally best “mark” on an application to an elite college is a high SAT (or ACT) score. High scores are within reach of ANY student, irrespective of wealth. At Ivy Bound, the top improvers in three of the last four years were public school students whose parents paid $850 or less for tuition.

As for college consultants – yes, a good independent consultant is valuable to a student to put her/his best foot forward. And a consultant is especially helpful for a student who does not organize well or regiment well. That consultant will get the application process done correctly, keep the student from missing deadlines and keep the student from causing parental grief. But no consultant activity is out of reach for a low-income student who has an adult mentor. These consultants can no longer “pull strings” like they used to. They make their students earn their admission. Again, a non-privileged driven student can get just as far without a pricey consultant’s help. And for truly low income families, there are admissions ADVANTAGES that well-off students do not have.

So the news is generally GOOD. Merit matters more than ever. Family wealth matters less than ever. Grad schools and elite firms recruiting on campuses care greatly about where you attend college; they do not ask “how you got there”. In sum there has been no greater equalizer of opportunity than the loose “system” of American colleges. Four years after matriculating, almost every student has the same employment opportunities. They become products of a now very egalitarian system, with the appellation “College Graduate”.
Mark Greenstein is the founder of Ivy Bound Test Prep, based in Newington CT, which offers classes and private tutoring for academics, the SAT, the ACT and AP tests.