Three years ago, Washington College in Maryland enrolled a young woman from San Diego as one of the first scholars in a new program that provides full tuition, room and board for high-ability, high-need students. Her parents were hardly celebrities. In fact, they had taken on heavy debt to pay for two years of college for their first-born child before realizing that they could not afford more student loans for their second, Alicia, a bright and motivated student who aspired to a career as a physical therapist.
Washington College sought out the younger sibling and gave her a rare opportunity to earn a debt-free education at one of the nation’s best small liberal arts and sciences colleges, where I’m now privileged to serve as president. Since venturing from the West Coast to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Alicia has thrived academically and socially in a close-knit community where she is now paying it forward. The double-major in biology and Hispanic studies is president of her sorority, a resident assistant and coach of women’s rugby, the club team she organized with 22 active members. And she’s a mentor to other first-generation students recruited through the Washington Scholars program, which enrolls 10 students each year, fully funding a college education for up to 40 students at a time.
In the grand scheme of things, our program is a drop in the bucket, given just how much the educational system favors the wealthy. But it’s what all of us in higher education should be doing. We need to do more for those people without the means to game the system, as we’ve seen with the recent college admissions scandal involving cheating on standardized tests and bribing college coaches.
Frankly, I’m surprised at the level of naivete regarding the idea that people with financial means would do such a thing — it happens all the time. There has been and continues to be a thriving, perfectly legal industry in hiring private consultants to coach kids from freshman or sophomore year in high school right on up to the Ivy of their choice. And if you’re not that wealthy, maybe you can at least spend $500 to get your junior a special class in how to take the SAT to improve scores.
Likewise, remember that districts with higher tax bases can direct more money to their public schools. If you live in Princeton, New Jersey, as I did when I was CEO of Educational Testing Service, your children will go to well-financed public schools, getting the support and learning they need to put them in a better position for admission to a good college. Twelve miles down the road in Trenton, it’s another story. And despite the best efforts of ETS and other testing organizations to make sure that the testing instruments are psychometrically accurate and non-discriminatory, education in our country remains a matter of ZIP codes.
So, what can we do about it?
First, U.S. News & World Report and the other top college guides need to stop putting so much emphasis on the SAT and ACT. They should not be the overweighted measure of a student’s potential. That said, more states should mandate SAT testing for every high school student as a prerequisite to graduation. In states such as Delaware where this is the norm, countless students who might not otherwise have even considered college score well on the SAT, making them eligible for financial aid that can help them attain the goal of a higher education.
And colleges and universities need to look beyond test scores and GPAs and consider where their applicants are coming from. Are they from a “wealthy” ZIP code or an “underserved” ZIP code? How can they do more to make college possible for students from the latter?
These indictments are not a scandal. Rather, they are a symptom of the real issue that our country needs to address, and that is the economic inequities that are built into our system of education and our nation as a whole. It’s our moral imperative to reach out to students of promise who might just need a helping hand to achieve their dreams.
Kurt Landgraf is the president of Washington College, a private liberal arts college on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the former CEO of Educational Testing Service and former vice chair of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.