The 1590 SAT Score Blues: College Scam Betrays American Strivers

Adam Oubaita is a poster child for the American meritocracy. He grew up in Queens, the son of a Russian immigrant mother and Malian-Moroccan father who met in New York. He aced a New York City exam to win a spot at Stuyvesant, one of the most selective U.S. public high schools.

At Stuyvesant, Oubaita has kept up with notoriously grueling academics, all while writing for the school newspaper, participating in Model United Nations and working part-time as a jewelry-store cashier. On his own, he studied every day for his SAT college exams using free online tools and library books. The 18-year-old senior ultimately scored a 1590 on the test, 10 points off a perfect score, and now tutors others.

“You get used to the five hours of sleep,” he joked, after wrapping up his Shakespearean literature class and en route to mock-trial competition.

Now, Oubaita and other top students from modest backgrounds — America’s strivers — are questioning a system that was supposed to reward grit. The betrayal cuts deepest among less privileged students at the nation’s most rigorous academies, such as exam schools in New York, Boston and Virginia and all manner of top-performing public schools.

This week, federal prosecutors charged dozens of parents with scheming to cheat their children’s way into elite universities such as Yale, Georgetown and Stanford. The government said parents collectively paid millions to game college entrance exams and bribe college coaches to win special treatment for their kids as athletes, even though some didn’t even play sports. They scammed extra time on the SAT and ACT by faking kids’ disabilities or paying a proctor to fix wrong answers or have someone else take the tests for them.

“I see so many brilliant people who get turned away” from colleges, Oubaita said. “They have to try so much harder just to be considered at that same regard by colleges. That in itself is just so unfair. Instead, the people who are taking up those spots are people who are literally bribing their way into college. It’s completely ridiculous.”

Getting Ahead

Lower-income students have reason to stress out about the quality of the colleges that accept them, said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Richard V. Reeves. For a rich child, enrolling in a slightly less prestigious college has a negligible effect on post-college career success, research shows. However, he said, “if you’re a kid from a middle-class or working-class family and you get into an elite college, that transforms your life chances.”

Sandra Timmons sees these transformations up close. She’s president of A Better Chance, a nonprofit that helps low-income sixth to 12th graders — many of them members of minority groups — into top private schools and later colleges like Yale and Harvard. The admissions scandal will discourage those students.

“It’s one illustration about how uneven the playing field can be if many of the controls and protections aren’t in place,’’ she said. “It does undermine that belief for that young person who believes the odds are against them already. They think, ‘there’s no way, it’s not fair.’’’

Rich Campuses

Students from poor — or even middle-class — backgrounds are hard to find on elite campuses. Ivy League colleges enroll more students from the top 1 percent of income than the bottom 50 percent combined, according to research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and others.

While college-attendance rates for students from poor backgrounds have increased overall in the last 15 years, the fraction of low-income students at so-called high-mobility colleges has fallen, Chetty’s research found.

“These institutions are already massively skewed in favor of serving the sons and daughters of the affluent,” Reeves said. “All this corruption scandal does is it blows the lid off a system that is in itself rigged.”

The wealthy pay for high-priced counseling, test prep and multimillion-dollar donations to give them an edge in admissions. Only a relative handful of colleges, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton, evaluate students without regard to their ability to pay tuition and other costs.

‘Arms Race’

“Low- and middle-income students are undermined by the arms race in the college application process,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former deputy undersecretary of education in the Obama administration. “Wealthy families are able to pay for the kind of prep for their children that is not so much a reflection on the applicant’s actual abilities or hard work but really are a reflection of the family’s ability to subsidize.”

At the same time, elite colleges are turning down ever more applicants. For the current freshman class, Yale admitted 6.3 percent of its applicants, down from 8.6 percent a decade ago and 20.7 percent in 1980.

Perhaps nowhere are teenagers fighting harder than at Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and the other six New York City specialized exam schools — for generations an entré into top colleges. Each year, about 30,000 students take a challenging test to win spots. They’re ranked based on their scores and placed among the eight campuses. Stuyvesant, which emphasizes math, science and technology, accepts only those with the very top marks.

Mayor’s Criticism

Three-quarters of Stuyvesant’s students are Asian-American, 20 percent white, 1 percent African-American and 3 percent Latino, according to the latest data. Mayor Bill De Blasio is pushing to overhaul admissions at the exam schools, so it doesn’t rely on a single test and becomes more reflective of the heavily Hispanic and black school system.

Asian-Americans already need higher test scores to get into elite schools, research shows. Harvard is facing a federal lawsuit, in the same Boston courthouse where the admissions scandal is playing out, that alleges the university enforces quotas, holding them to a higher academic standard. Harvard denies the allegations.

Lifted Up

At Stuyvesant, almost two in five students are poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to federal data.

“They are doing what public schools should be doing, lifting people up,” said Soo Kim, a 1993 Stuyvesant graduate who is president of the school’s alumni association. “It’s an engine of social mobility.”

Just steps from the Hudson River, Stuyvesant’s 10-story building takes over most of a city block. On a brisk afternoon this week, hundreds of students bearing heavy backpacks scurried between classes or grabbed a bite on nearby esplanade benches, some laboring intently over laptops.

Julia Arancio, an 18-year-old senior, said she loves the environment at Stuy, as it’s often called, where intelligence rather than designer clothes is the social currency. People barely register when classmates mention a SAT score over 1500, which puts students in the top 1 percent of all test takers.

Arancio hasn’t given up on the meritocracy. After all, she said, Stuyvesant students do very well in admissions and later in life. Universities, she said, know many have achieved high scores without pricey tutoring — and certainly without paying someone to take a test for them.

“Colleges know what they’re getting when a student applies from Stuyvesant,” Arancio said. “They expect candidates who are intelligent and interesting and have a million extracurricular activities and go above and beyond in every way. But it’s based on hard work.”

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