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College admissions under scrutiny after scandal: "It's hard to know what's fair"

Solutions to problems uncovered by admissions scandal

The college admissions scandal is shining a light on the secretive world of elite university admissions offices, which reject far more applications than they accept. Even without the outright bribery and cheating alleged this week by federal prosecutors, wealthy students and their parents can tilt the playing field by paying for expensive tutors or offering to donate huge sums -- legally -- to a desired college. 

The practice of accepting a share of "legacy" students, or children of alumni, has been a long-time focus of critics of higher education in the U.S., who say the policy may make it harder for higher-achieving but less connected students to earn a coveted spot. 

Underneath the discussions of fairness is a growing unease harbored by parents at every income level about their children's futures. That wealthy parents resorted to cheating to secure college acceptances may signal widespread societal fears about loss of status and income at a time when social mobility is increasingly precarious. Grads of elite universities tend to earn annual salaries that are as much as 50 percent higher than all other college grads. 

"A lot of parents view entry into these elite colleges as a marker of success for their students, not only the success of getting in, but the success for future promise," said Adam Harris, staff writer for The Atlantic, told CBSN. "Admissions come down to this question of fairness, and it's hard to know what is exactly fair when this happens in a black box."

The real payoff for grads of elite colleges

Others have taken their questions even further, suing over the admissions process at elite colleges. Harvard University is now awaiting a decision in a lawsuit over whether its policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants. In that case, a group called the Students for Fair Admissions argues that Harvard's pledge to admit diverse students isn't being upheld. 

"There are 23 times as many wealthy students on campus as poor students," the group said in a filing, according to the Harvard Crimson, the college's student newspaper. 

Wealth on campus

Harvard isn't alone in having a disproportionate number of wealthy students on campus. Thirty-eight colleges, including Yale and four other Ivy League colleges, have more students from the 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution, a 2017 study from economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues found. 

While elite colleges have always served as bastions of the wealthy, the trend is becoming more pronounced, according to Opportunity Insights, a team of analysts and policy experts that includes Chetty. They found that although more low-income students are attending college than before, the share of students from poor families attending elite colleges has fallen during the past 15 years.

"There are countless ways that students are robbed of a 'fair shot' if they are not lucky enough to be born to well-resourced, well-connected parents," wrote Richard Reeves, the author of "Dream Hoarders," at Brookings Institution. 

To be sure, private colleges such as Harvard and Yale are businesses that require not only tuition checks, but donations from wealthy families, which in turn help pay for scholarships for students from low- and middle-income families.  

"It's a game"

A telling insight comes from William Singer, the founder of the educational consulting company that engineered the scheme to rely on bribery and cheating to gain acceptance for the children of wealthy clients. 

"It's a game," he said in an audition tape for a reality TV show that he made in 2010 that was published by TMZ. "At some schools, even $10 million isn't enough."

But more people are questioning the fairness of that game. Two college students have filed a lawsuit against the University of Southern California, Yale University and other colleges targeted by the admissions scam, alleging they were denied a fair opportunity for admission because the colleges didn't do enough to guard against gaming the system.

Their lawsuit claims: "Each of the universities took the students' admission application fees while failing to take adequate steps to ensure that their admissions process was fair and free of fraud, bribery, cheating and dishonesty."