College counselors say admissions scheme highlights existing inequity

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the news spread Tuesday of a massive admissions scheme across several states and universities, the people who work supporting students as they apply to college were listening.

For some, news of this investigation highlight the gaps they’ve already been experiencing in the college application process between students with resources and students without them. 

The U.S.Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday that FBI investigators and federal prosecutors busted the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice. The scheme involved a man who fraudulently got students from wealthy families into elite schools by bribing athletic coaches or by bribing ACT and SAT administrators to allow someone else to take those tests for them (or changes the answers later). 

UT Tennis Coach Michael Center was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. He allegedly accepted a $100,000 bribe to get a student into UT through the tennis program. 

“I’m currently applying to law schools and as someone who is in that process, my first thought is ‘Wow,'” said Haley Czarnek, a College Hub Program Specialist at Foundation Communities in Austin. “That’s yet another leg up people have compared to students in our population and students like me. I’m a first-generation college student who came from a working-class background.”

The students Czarnek works with at Foundation Communities are mostly low-income or first-generation students who are looking for free college advising. A majority of them go to ACC. Though many of them have heard of UT, they either don’t apply or are not able to attend. Czarnek explained these students often get discouraged at the prospect of going to elite schools because they know they don’t have much money to devote to higher education. 

“That’s a lot of what we do is that emotional work of telling students, ‘No you need to not count yourself out,’ which is really hard to do when you hear stories like this that make them feel like I don’t have a shot at this because I don’t have money.”

Czarnek said even before this investigation surfaced there have also been elements of the college application process which are completely legal and put students like the ones she works with at a disadvantage. She noted how some students who barely miss qualifying for a fee waiver on applications may wind up not sending the application at all.

Brianna McDonough, the College Hub Manager at Foundation Communities, explained that a lack of free test prep resources also puts their students at a disadvantage.  

“It’s hard and stressful and it’s also very expensive to prepare for {the SAT and ACT] in ways like taking classes, like if you’re to enroll in a Kaplan or Princeton review type classes they are very expensive and really inaccessible for the students we work with,” McDonough said

“Even applying to college is expensive, there are application fees to even submit an application to a four-year institution. They can be from $25 to over $100 for an application,” she added. 

On the admissions scandal, McDonough responded saying: “It’s not fair, you know these folks are coming from really privileged backgrounds and they already have a leg up in a lot of the education systems, they have the resources to prepared for standardized tests.”

Czarnek added that while she’s glad this scheme is being investigated,  investigating the case doesn’t address all of the problems which set low-income students so much further back than their wealthier peers. 

“It would be great if we could solve the problem of people literally not being able to bribe testing administrators so that they could get extra time and what have you, but it would be even better if we could talk about how do we get good quality resources for students that are free?”

Alex Duran, a College and Career Counselor for Travis Early College High School in South Austin, explained that students there usually begin prepping for the SAT and ACT their freshman year of high school. 

At Travis High School he explained, all the juniors will be taking the ACT at school on a day in April. His office helps students register for the test and understand the procedures that will go on the day it happens.

“Overall it is a challenging task for students to overcome,” he explained. “Not only because of the content of the exam, but I think a lot of students also worry about the implications of what their scores will be like.”

Duran used to be a proctor for the SAT and ACT back when he was a teacher. He explained that on the day of the test, teachers arrive early and wait for a testing supervisor to begin letting in students. The actual process for testing has very strict rules, with a check-in system at the front of the testing center and another one as students enter the actual room. Students must carry a photo ID with them at all times, even during breaks. 

Right now at Travis High, Duran says it’s an exciting time to be a college counselor as students are starting to make their admissions decisions. 

UT is the school his students are most familiar with, but actually applying and getting in is a challenge he said, explaining that while some students are admitted, others are not admitted or need to attend community college first. 

Admission to UT has gotten even tougher, in 2017 the university again increased it’s admission standards, automatic admission for students is now only available to the students graduating in the top 6 percent of their high school class. The Top 10 %, rule which was passed more than two decades ago, originally required all public universities in the state to admit all Texans who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. UT Austin has adjusted their automatic admittance percentage since then as the numbers of applicants increase. 

The news of this admission scandal has Durant pushing himself, even more, to make sure all Travis High School students get the resources they need to apply for and eventually attend college. 

“I think of my particular students that I serve here at Travis and some of the options they are not afforded to,” he said. “And really it is sort of a challenge, what are some of the things that I can do here at Travis, as educators across the nation to afford students the access to take these exams? To apply to any schools they see fit and eventually complete those degrees?” 

Duran encourages students and parents to reach out to their high schools and see what resources might be available to them to help with applying to college.

Those seeking college counseling for free can schedule an appointment on the Foundation Communities website.

Future of College Admission Testing

For many, the testing process is already stressful enough as it is and with the ACT test scheduled for April, followed by the SAT test in May, it might be even extra stressful now after the massive ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal with more scrutiny on security.

Both the SAT and ACT list their policies and security online which state they are designed to give students a fair opportunity and to prevent anyone from gaining an advantage on the exam. 

That includes things like requiring a photo I-D — even during bathroom breaks — so nobody can take the test for you.

Testing officials also make sure all testing materials are secure before, during and after the test. 

Alex Duran, a college and career counselor for Travis Early College High School in South Austin said this can be a very nerve-wracking time for students because of how much it impacts their future.

“Overall it is a challenging task for students to overcome, not only because of the content of the exam, but I think a lot of students also worry about the implications of what their scores will be like, what options they may or may not have based on those scores,” Duran said. “I think a lot of times they are thinking about stuff that’s really not related to the exam when they are taking the test.”

To get extra time on these tests — like some of those did who cheated — it requires filling out an eligibility form and explaining your child’s disability. A school administrator must also sign it. The scandal could lead to more scrutiny on that.

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