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Pay to Play: the College App Game

The Opinion of The Oracle: Costly application process puts low-income at disadvantage

Just over a decade ago, the college application process was a very different system. Hopeful seniors once submitted applications by traditional mail, in envelopes full of physical copies of application forms, printed-out essays and teacher recommendations. Nowadays, colleges opt instead for digital submissions, admission rates to top colleges have dropped from the double-digits, and applicant pools are hitting record highs. However, most alarming is the financial transformation that the college application process has undergone; since the late 1990s, applying to college has become an increasingly expensive monetary commitment, a trend that can be attributed to exorbitant fees from the College Board and the birth of the college prep industry. As a result, the college application process has created a system that unfairly favors students willing and able to pay high prices for an edge in the application process. This system in which money can complement or even supplant merit does not belong in the college application process, since it ignores students who may be just as qualified but cannot afford to display or supplant this natural merit through tests or preparatory services.

Feeding into the “Not-for-Profit”  

College Board

Tests, a staple of the college application process, are a major cause of high costs. The College Board, a “non-profit” organization which raked in $65.6 million worth of net revenues in 2010 and has a near monopoly over the test-taking industry, charges a hefty premium for tests. Students who don’t qualify for fee waivers have no choice but to pay the designated fees for whichever tests they’re required to or wish to take. Currently, regular SAT fees for 2013-2014 are $51. The ACT, an alternative to the SAT, costs $36.50 without writing and $52.50 with writing. Since nearly all colleges require students to take either the ACT or SAT, paying these test fees has become mandatory if a student is applying to college.

Furthermore, when all the available tests—SAT, ACT, SAT subject and Advanced Placement (AP)—are taken into consideration, the costs can add up. Students who wish to stand out in an applicant pool or display their interest in a specific subject are expected to take SAT subject and AP tests. Some colleges—including the University of California public school system—even require SAT subject tests, making the payout compulsory rather than optional. A basic SAT subject test registration costs $23, with each additional subject test costing another $13. AP exams cost the most at $110 each for Gunn students who register on time. According to the 2013-2014 Gunn Profile, the average Gunn student takes two to three AP exams, a number which means a payment of $220 to $330 for AP tests alone at Gunn. When a student adds up all the tests he might take during high school, the grand total is hundreds of dollars, a sum that may prevent lower-income students from taking the tests that might provide an edge in their college applications.

 

Costs of College 

Applications Alone

After a series of test fees, students are also expected to pay another lump sum for college applications themselves. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average application fee was $37.88 in Spring 2012, though application fees for private colleges can cost up to a hundred dollars. Transcript requests at Gunn cost $10, while SAT test score reports cost $11.25. Since Gunn students apply to 13 private and out-of-state colleges on average, according to Registrar Tracy Douglas, the act of simply applying to college ends up becoming an overpriced expenditure.

For the underprivileged  student who fails to qualify for fee waivers, these expenses can be high enough to be a deterrent against applying to desired colleges. Even students from middle-class families may question their college applications when faced with the unreasonably large figures of these common fees. Meanwhile, wealthier students have the option of applying to how many colleges they wish, thereby gaining the opportunities others are deprived of due to financial reasons.

 

Growth in the College Prep Industry

In the mid-1990s, a new private sector industry emerged to help students gain admittance to colleges. The industry offered services similar to those available today: SAT coaching, private counselors and tutoring. However, in 1997, a paper on “Access, Equity and the Privatization of College Counseling” reported that only 3 percent of college freshmen had used private counselors. Since then, the influence of private counselors in the college application process has increased. As college admissions grow more competitive, more students have turned to outside help for an advantage over their peers. With increased demand, the college prep industry has undergone rapid expansion in the last decade. The Bay Area alone is now home to dozens of companies that offer students not only test-prep programs but also GPA-boosting packages and private counseling. Compared to public school college counselors who deal with hundreds of students each, private counselors can promise uninterrupted individualized management during the application process. These services can cost up to thousands of dollars, a hefty price tag for students. At the college consulting business ThinkTank Learning, the average 2011 fee for most students was between $10,000 and $12,000, according to CEO Steven Ma. Ma’s business is only one of many similar companies that target college applicants. For students from low-income families, spending thousands to secure additional college application guidance is not a financially feasible option. On the other hand, students who can afford these high costs have the option of employing these services to increase their college admission chances. This transforms a system that was once a meritocracy into a game of who can buy the most advantages.

Taking into consideration the substantial total of fees and private preparatory costs, the college application process is no longer a system meant to display a student’s academic merit. Instead, it has become a financial undertaking that burdens students and appeals to the wealthy. Those unable to afford this colossal commitment can be unfairly placed at a disadvantage; they may be forced to apply to fewer colleges or receive fewer opportunities to bolster their college application, whether through test scores, preparatory services or the help of a private counselor. Considering the major role college can play in an individual’s future, a college application process driven by money and partial to the wealthy is undoubtedly an issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible for the sake of the next generation.

While there is no solution to make college admissions completely merit-based, The Oracle recommends a series of mitigating measures that colleges and non-profits can implement. Colleges should institute a more accessible system of waivers and consider abolishing application fees altogether. Most major private institutions are very well-endowed—the funding from application fees cannot possibly provide the substantial revenue a multi-billion dollar endowment can. College Board and other corporations who list themselves as non-profit should use their excessive revenues to lower test fees. Both sides have to make a concerted attempt to remove the role of affluence in the college application process.

 

—Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the staff (assenting: 49; dissenting: 3; abstaining: 1)

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