WASHINGTON – It’s not just the illegal efforts to game college admissions that alarm most Americans.
While allegations that rich parents cheated their children’s way into elite universities have captured headlines, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll also finds overwhelming public opposition to the legal breaks for college admission available to athletes, alumni families and minorities.
By more than 3-1, those surveyed say college admissions favor the wealthy and well-connected in an unfair way. Fewer than one in five Americans say the process is generally fair.
“If you’re a millionaire, you can get your kids to the front of the class,” said Robert Lynch, 62, of Selden, New York, who participated in the poll, in a follow-up interview. Five of his 12 children have attended college, relying on scholarships and student loans.
Hosie Ward, 73, a retired accountant from Washington, D.C., says he was surprised not by the latest scandal but by the fact that the inequities of college admissions are finally getting attention. “It has been controlled by the dollars and controlled by the rich,” he said. “I’m just happy that at least it’s reported.”
By 67-19 percent, those surveyed say college admissions favor the rich and powerful, a sentiment that crosses partisan lines. Three of four Democrats call the system generally unfair; so do six of 10 Republicans.
“Respondents in the poll are saying money talks, and they don’t like it,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk Political Research Center. “Across all demographics, Americans find college admissions unfairly favor the wealthy and the well connected.”
The national poll of 1,000 registered voters, taken March 13-17 by landline and cell phone, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The arrest of business executives, actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, and others for a scheme that authorities say involved bribery, cheating on standardized tests and fraud has sparked a broader debate over just who manages to get into college, and how.
At stake is more than the opportunity to learn skills that are needed in a complicated and competitive world: A college diploma, especially from the most highly respected schools, can be a pathway to prominent jobs and helpful connections.
More: College scam rekindles scrutiny of Kushner’s Harvard acceptance, $2.5M pledge
More: What did the students know about ‘the side door,’ and what should happen next?
“Sometimes people will do whatever they think it takes to keep an advantage for them and their children,” said Aaron Dillon, 54, an engineer from Bolingbrook, Illinois, who was among those polled. “But it’s just wrong … and it’s sad. It’s the state of America.”
He impressed on his own children the importance of a college education. The older two attended college and the third is headed there this fall, counting on a combination of loans, scholarships, a job and parental help to pay for it.
“If I’ve got to get a second job or cut some corners on some bills, eat more hamburgers, less steak, eat some Ramen noodles, sacrifices will be made to allow her to accomplish her goal,” Dillon said.
Special treatment is not OK
The notion that the wealthy can deploy their fortunes to get their children into college –using charitable donations that are not only legal but also give them a tax break – particularly galls many Americans.
By a margin of 83-13 percent, those surveyed say it is not acceptable for students to get special treatment if their parents or relatives contribute large sums of money to a university or buy a building.
That said, defenders of the system note that major contributions help underwrite college costs, making it possible for the schools to offer more financial aid to students from lower-income families.
By more than 2-1, those polled also say other factors that are often weighed as part of the admissions process by colleges are “unacceptable:”
- Special treatment for athletes was opposed by 64-29 percent.
- Preferences for the children of alumni were opposed by 63-31 percent.
- Affirmative action for minorities was opposed by 61-29 percent.
“Just because your parents went there and were smart enough to get into the school doesn’t mean that you’re smart enough to get into the school,” says Annastacia Lester, 18, of Williamsfield, Illinois, who participated in the poll. “I worked my butt off to get where I was.” She graduated from Enlightium Academy, a Christian online school, and plans to go to college in a year or so.
Zach Schreiner, 27, of Quad Cities, Iowa, argued in a follow-up interview that giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni or athletes doesn’t really benefit the schools. “How is that furthering the education of the student body at universities?” he asked.
In his view, preferential treatment for students with special needs and people of color is different, providing diversity that helps students get to know and understand people from different backgrounds. “It adds to a student’s education,” he says.
More: How did the college admissions system get so rigged?
More: Fake disabilities, photoshopped faces: How feds say the scam worked
Strong support for SAT, ACT
Affirmative action for minorities is the only preferential treatment that shows significant differences by demography. Whites by a wide margin, 65-27 percent, call it “unacceptable.” Blacks split narrowly on the issue, with 48 percent calling it unacceptable, 43 percent calling it acceptable.
“That’s still racism in a sense,” says Calvin Crawford, 18, a senior at University High School in Spokane, Washington, because it gives preference to “a group of people just because of their race.”
But Dillon, the father of three from Illinois, says it is wrong to include affirmative action in the discussion of the college-admissions scandal. Those parents had the legal ability to send their children to get the best education at private schools, he said, then stepped over the line. “Just to pay your way into a system because you can – I think that’s wrong.”
Affirmative action is a way to help level the playing field for students of color, he says. “We’ve been systematically denied access to allow us to get ahead and move further in life.”
Meanwhile, those surveyed overwhelmingly support colleges’ use of standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT to screen applicants. By 65-27 percent, they say the tests should continue to be used. Some critics have argued the tests can be a disadvantage for minority students, and some colleges no longer require applicants to take them. In the admissions scandal, some parents are accused of intervening to raise their children’s test scores.
In the poll, younger respondents were more likely than older ones to say the tests shouldn’t be used, though a solid majority of all age groups endorsed them. Just one-fifth of those 65 and older oppose the use of the tests, while one-third of those 18 to 34 years old oppose them – that is, the age group most likely to have recently had to take them.