The Real College Admissions Scandal: It’s Not Just Rich Kids Getting Into Schools They Don’t Deserve, It’s Low-Income Students Who Can’t Go to the Schools They Deserve

Actress Felicity Huffman is scheduled for sentencing today after pleading guilty in the college admissions scandal that shocked the nation. A criminal conspiracy of wealthy parents who allegedly bribed university officials and cheated on tests to get their children admitted to “the right schools” makes for outrageous headlines, and people are right to be angry about it. But beyond the tabloid headlines about spoiled rich kids and celebrities on trial, there is an even BIGGER college admissions scandal that happens every day in plain sight. The real college admissions scandal is even more damaging to America’s future. And we should be even more furious about it.

The real college admissions scandal is called “undermatching.” And instead of rich kids cheating the system to get into schools that they “don’t deserve,” undermatching is what happens when talented, hard-working, low-income students who can’t afford to enroll in the great schools that they do deserve (even if they are fully qualified and get admitted) — because of a lack of support and lack of funding.

Remember: why were Felicity Huffman and these other wealthy parents in the admissions scandal willing to pay such a high price to get their kids into these brand-name schools, even to the point of breaking the law? Because they valued the “premium” associated with getting their kids into those big-name schools. They wanted the best possible educational outcomes and social capital for their kids.

Meanwhile, if you’re low-income, even if you got admitted to those better schools, but can’t afford to pay the “premium” (higher tuition cost), then you’re stuck. This is why undermatching is the real scandal. This is the real injustice — not just a few wealthy parents cheating, but all those lower-income students who DESERVE to be at those schools, who can’t go there because they can’t pay the premium.

What is undermatching?

Undermatching is when low-income students enroll at colleges and universities that are less selective than the students’ qualifications permit. It’s when you’ve got the grades to get into a “good school,” but not enough money to pay for it.

When a talented, qualified student from a low-income family plays by the rules, gets good grades, and gets admitted to a more selective college or university but decides not to enroll because they don’t have enough money to pay the premium price of that higher tuition, or decides to go to a 2-year school instead of a 4-year school, or enrolls at a for-profit university with a 15% graduation rate instead of a public university with a 65% graduation rate, they are being undermatched. Students like these end up going to poorer-performing colleges with fewer resources, leading to worse outcomes: lower graduation rates, lower incomes, and lower career potential.

By all means, be angry about rich parents cheating the system — but let’s be furiously outraged about the many, many more low-income students who are being cheated by the system. The celebrity college admissions scandal has shown just how far some wealthy parents are willing to go to cheat in order to give their children the additional benefits of a top-tier education — so that makes it even more unjust when deserving low-income students, who can get admitted to these schools fairly and on their own merits, can’t afford to pay tuition or cheat the system or bribe their way in. Our system is depriving low-income students of the added benefits and premium value that goes with graduating from a better school — and these lower-income students are exactly the types of students who gain the most from that premium value.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a recent study found that 43% of college students were undermatching, and that undermatched students are less likely to graduate on time. Undermatching is also more likely to happen to students of color. There are massive, intersecting issues of social injustice, racial inequality, and inequality of opportunity for upward mobility that need to be addressed as part of the scandal that is undermatching.

How does undermatching happen? Breaking it down…

Undermatching happens in two ways:

  1. Funding gap, lack of money: This is when low-income students get admitted to a more-selective university, but can’t afford to attend — or believe that they can’t afford to attend, don’t know how to get access to sufficient financial aid, or don’t understand their options for financing their education. The majority of low-income students at selective four-year institutions do not get full-ride scholarships. Simply put, there’s a funding gap that the students are unable to fill — so they go to a cheaper (and often lower-performing) school that doesn’t give them the “premium” of a better-performing school.
  2. Bad advice, misinformation, lack of awareness: Undermatching often happens because of bad advice. Low-income students often get advised — usually by well-intentioned parents or counselors — to “only go to the schools they can afford” without taking out student loans. A recent study cited by Inside Higher Ed suggested that much of undermatching is caused by financial gaps and a reluctance to take on student loans.

Lots of low-income students are also first-generation college students; they might not know their options, they might not know enough about the reality of college admissions and college tuition, they might get intimidated by a high tuition sticker price without understanding the financial aid process. They are often getting well-intentioned but outdated advice from their parents or relatives, getting advised to go to “the cheapest college you can” or “avoid taking on debt.”

People are scared and misinformed by the media narrative around student loans, and unfortunately they’re giving bad advice to the students who need good advice the most! And often, this advice to “go to a cheap college” or “don’t bother applying to that big-name school, you probably can’t afford it” is not well-intentioned; it’s condescending, limiting, and morally wrong! It’s wrong and harmful to tell talented young people that they should set their sights lower. Especially for low-income first-generation college students, going to a “cheap, close to home” college might be a life-altering mistake — while reaching a bit farther for a better college might put them on the path to an unimaginably brighter future.

And look: I don’t mean to say that a 2-year college or more affordable college is ALWAYS “the wrong choice.” It’s complicated! Not every college is “right” for every student, and there’s no one right answer for every situation. Sometimes students SHOULD go to a 2-year school and then transfer to a 4-year college to finish their Bachelor’s degree. Or go to a cheaper public university with in-state tuition for 2 years, and then transfer to your “dream” private school out-of-state.

Lots of families are doing the best they can with the information and resources available to them. It’s understandable that lots of parents today, especially if they’re still paying off student loans of their own, or never went to college themselves, might be reluctant to encourage their students to sign up for student loans. There are lots of scary headlines out there about the skyrocketing cost of college and student loan debt burdens. There are massively difficult and stressful realities of how and whether to pay for college, and often a lack of options for low-income students and families to finance their education and afford that “premium” of a better school.

But: especially for high-achieving kids, the kids who get good grades and good test scores, the kids who have the talent and drive to get into the better tiers of schools — these are the kids that we most need to embrace and support. These are the kids who most deserve and benefit from that added “premium” of going to a great school. These are the kids who are going to shock the world.

Instead of telling these kids to settle for less, let’s tell them to reach for more. If we care at all about making America a more just and equitable society, if we care about investing in the talent of our future workforce and getting more people from underrepresented communities into professional careers, we need to solve the undermatching crisis.

How is undermatching related to student loans?

Some of the data indicate that lower-income students are undermatching because they don’t want to take on student loans. But by trying to “save money,” by going to a “lower-cost” school, they often end up missing out on better outcomes and bigger lifelong incomes. Student loans, if done responsibly, can help solve the undermatching crisis, by helping students go to better schools that have better outcomes and better career paths.

It’s so poignant to think that a few wealthy families are willing to break the law and abuse their money and influence to get their children into the rightschool. But meanwhile there is a massive population of lower-income students that are being told to just settle for less and go to the cheapest school they can afford because debt is scary and “student loans are bad.”

The data doesn’t back up what these lower-income students are being told about student loans. The data is clear: as students undermatch to lesser selective schools, or forgo a four-year college and instead attend community college, default rates on student loans can increase by orders of magnitude. Default rates also INCREASE with smaller loan amounts (to attend more affordable schools) and DECREASE with larger loan amounts (to attend more selective, and typically more expensive, schools).

If you use student loans to go to a good school with good outcomes, to help you finish your degree and get on a good career path, to pay for the “premium” of a better school, it’s not irresponsible, it’s a sound investment.

Why does undermatching matter?

Undermatching hurts everyone: students, colleges, and society as a whole.

Students: When students get undermatched, they are missing out on the premium value of earning a degree from the best-performing colleges and universities that create the best outcomes for them.

This is the real scandal, and the real crisis: not a few wealthy kids cheating the system, but LOTS of low-income kids who are being cheated BY the system. High-income families can pay their way in to those better, “premium” schools, even if they don’t deserve to get admitted there, even if it means cheating and bribery; low-income families are left hanging or left out. Low-income students don’t have options to pay for the premium. They’re getting denied equal access to the same schools as their high-income peers.

Undermatching hurts students and diminishes their futures. When talented, qualified lower-income students don’t get to go to the best possible schools for them, they are less likely to graduate on time, they’re less likely to finish their degree, they’re less likely to have a strong career, and they’re more likely to default on their student loans.

We have federal student loan data that shows: higher-tier schools help lower-income students achieve 2x greater lifetime median income, 6x greater 4-year graduation rates, and 6x lower default rates on student loans.

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Instead of telling students to aim their sights lower and settle for less, we should be encouraging them to reach farther and aim higher — to go as far as their talents and their drive to succeed will take them.

Colleges: Believe it or not, colleges are hurt by undermatching too. Why? Because they’re missing out on a diverse talent pool that would enrich their campuses with broader perspectives and greater social inclusion. According to data cited by the New York Times, children from the wealthiest families are most likely to attend Ivy League or “Elite” universities; students from lower income families are less likely to attend more selective and elite colleges, and are more likely to attend 2-year or for-profit colleges. Our most selective universities — despite claiming to have need-blind admissions and generous scholarships — are mostly becoming private clubs for the elite.

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Colleges and universities pride themselves on being engines of social mobility, paragons of meritocracy, and hubs of activism for social justice — so let’s see them step up and provide more leadership here! I want to see college campuses that truly look like 21st Century America in its full racial, cultural and socioeconomic diversity — not playgrounds for the children of the wealthy elite.

College leaders also need to understand that undermatching is depriving their campuses of talented, qualified, motivated students who would be likely to succeed! These are not remedial learners, these are hard-working, capable, career-focused, often high-achieving students who deserve to be on your campus, who often get admitted but then can’t afford to enroll. Colleges need to work harder to reach these kids and keep them from falling through the cracks.

Data from a longitudinal study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shows that when low-income students go to more highly selective universities, they’re able to achieve almost the same graduation rates as their high-income peers. If we can put low-income students at better schools with the right support, they will rise to the occasion!

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Society and the Future Workforce: Ultimately, undermatching hurts all of us. Everyone in America suffers when we squander the talent of our high-potential low-income students. When qualified, high-achieving low-income students don’t get to go to college, or don’t get to go to the best possible school that they deserve to attend, they miss out on having a more stimulating college experience with more challenging academics and more motivated peers to learn from; they miss out on building social capital and meeting future creative collaborators and business partners; they are less likely to graduate and less likely to go on to do great things in their careers, they’re less likely to help grow the economy and build a brighter future for all of us.

We have a massive talent shortage in the U.S. right now. Baby Boomers are retiring. By 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in the U.S. will require post-secondary credentials. Employers are crying out for diverse and female talent in STEM fields. And just when we need to invest in our young people more than ever to prepare them to generate the innovations of the future, instead we’re too often squandering their potential.

Think of all the talented future doctors and lawyers and teachers and scientists and engineers that we’re not developing, all the future businesses that don’t get started, all the powerful career networks and life connections that don’t get made because talented people didn’t get to go to the right schools.

Undermatching is a terrible waste of human potential and it’s costing all of us in ways that we have barely begun to imagine. And that’s why the college admissions scandal is so tragic — we have rich people cheating the system to pay a premium price for their child’s education, and meanwhile we have deserving lower-income students who get the biggest premium benefit from going to a better school, but they can’t get the financial support to afford the premium price.

This is a massive problem that is screaming out for solutions. It is unjust for these low-income students to be underserved and overlooked by our college admissions and student financial aid systems. So what can we do?

The Solution: “Upmatching”

We need to go from “undermatching” to “upmatching.” We need to proactively encourage and support lower-income students who are vulnerable to undermatching to think more expansively about what “the right college” means to them — and there’s no one “right college” for everyone; not everyone has to go to big-name elite universities, but lots of students would be better off choosing a higher-performing state university instead of a for-profit college or a low-performing private college. (“The new rules of choosing the right college” is a whole other topic that I will be writing more about in future articles).

We need to take action to help these students “upmatch,” to give them good information to make smart decisions about college and careers, to encourage them to go to not just “any” college, not just “the college that’s close to home” or “the cheapest” college, but to attend the best college for them, to receive that added “upmatch premium” value that they have earned.

If we upmatch, then we can enable and harness this hidden talent pipeline to get more people into the workforce, maximize the potential of people especially from communities who are often underrepresented. Upmatching has the chance to transform American society: more inclusion, more equality of opportunity, elevating the contributions of talented people from all backgrounds, no matter how much money their parents have.

Let’s help these talented, hard-working students go from undermatching to upmatching. Let’s give them better advice, information, and financial support, so they can make better-informed decisions about colleges and careers. Let’s increase financial literacy, remove the general stigma associated with student loans, and create more responsible, affordable financing options for low-income students. Let’s help the people who most deserve it to attend “the best college” for them, and receive their well-earned “upmatch premium” that will put them on a better path to their dreams. This is a future that’s worth fighting for, and worth investing in.

I’m a child of immigrants, a first-generation college graduate (Northwestern University), and my own life and career are a testament to the amazing things that can happen when talented people get a chance to “upmatch” to the college of their dreams. I “upmatched” by transferring from the University of Oregon to Northwestern University, but I had to struggle to afford the “upmatch premium” without any options for student loans; instead I had to defer my enrollment at Northwestern for one year, worked at Costco to save money, and later worked nine jobs to put myself through school while studying Economics and Pre-Med. Upmatching worked for me, and now I want to make it happen for thousands of other kids — but with better options for financial support than I had when I was their age!

If you’re mad at Felicity Huffman and her fellow celebrity defendants, if you’re mad at wealthy families cheating the system, that’s fine. Be mad.

But then take a step back and realize the true value of “upmatching” and think about how many lower-income students are being left behind. Think about how much of a difference we could be making right now in the lives of so many low-income students who are truly deserving of that life-changing premium benefit from being on campus at the school of their dreams.

If you realize and buy into the value of upmatching, if you believe that we should encourage and invest in higher education for talented people from all walks of life, then the real focus for everyone should be: how do we solve and overcome the funding gap so that lower-income students can afford the “upmatch premium” and go to better schools? Let’s focus on the real crisis and the real travesty of justice that is happening every day in America.

Changing this system from undermatching to upmatching is good public policy and good for the economy; but more importantly, it’s a moral imperative. In the interest of economic and social justice, we have a moral duty to help these kids. So yes, let’s hold people like Felicity Huffman accountable for their corruption and crimes. But let’s also take bigger, bolder action to fix the real college admissions scandal. Let’s transform this system to help the students who deserve to reap the benefits of their hard work, and support them to realize their fullest potential for years to come. Students, our universities, our workforce and our society will all be better for it.