Leveling the Playing Field of College Admissions

Graphic Design by: Dennis Mach

BRB Bottomline: A good SAT score has the power to change the path of not only a student’s education but also their life. Because of the important role that standardized testing plays in college admissions, thousands of private SAT prep and admissions counseling companies are exploiting high school students’ (and their parents’) anxiety over college apps for profit. Learn more about how a local non-profit, CollegeSpring, is fighting back to make education accessible to all.

Let’s be real. Applying to colleges was a total nightmare.

The dreadful summers of endless SAT prep—doing practice problems over and over again from test prep books that cost a small fortune or from small printed flash cards prepared by  SAT prep programs, which cost several small fortunes. We all remember those nights of crying over college essays, because they weren’t perfect enough; the stress of making sure we got that “A” in class because we thought it was the most important thing we needed to get into good colleges.

We’ve all been through it. We’ve all felt the pressure and stress of constantly trying to get the highest grades, the highest test scores, and excel at the highest level in our extracurriculars.

Personally, the most nerve-wracking component of my college application was the standardized test. Colleges use test scores as indicators of competency, as a standard baseline to compare students during admissions. I felt that without a great test score, I would automatically be rejected by colleges. Entrepreneurs have capitalized on these feelings of insecurity and students’ lack of confidence in their test-taking abilities. For an average $600+ for an 18 hour prep course, SAT/ACT prep courses now guarantee minimum point increases to entice students to sign up. More and more parents are shelling out hundreds of dollars for these services in hopes that it gives their child an advantage towards college admissions. As demand for these services increase, these prices will continue to grow 4% a year for the next decade according to the Fiscal Times.

Families who cannot afford these services are now at a greater disadvantage against those who can afford these classes. Like the person who stands on their tippy-toes at the front of a crowd, everyone behind them has to do the same in order to see. However, one local business is trying to change this by providing subsidized college prep programs tailored to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. While other for-profit education businesses strive to tilt the playing field, CollegeSpring is fighting to tilt it back.

Paving a New Path for Underprivileged Students

CollegeSpring is a San Francisco-based non-profit that strives to curb achievement gaps of students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and imbue in them confidence in taking standardized tests. The typical student who enrolls in a college prep program comes from a middle-upper class family that can afford to invest in higher education. This makes CollegeSpring unique in that it is one of few   companies that is focused on students who don’t necessarily have the means to pay top dollar.

Moreover while other companies have students come after school or on weekends to take their prep class, CollegeSpring integrates its curriculum into the student’s school day where mentors work with a group of high school students and help them study for the SAT. With schools bearing the entire cost of the program, students benefit from free services that will likely open doors for them in the future. The company works hard to help students increase their standardized test scores, which makes them more eligible for higher-ranking universities. Many of these students now have a really good shot at being the first in their families to go to college. So far, CollegeSpring and its educators have helped over 27,000 students and have improved its their students’ scores by an average of 103 points. The company plans to help over 25,000 more students within the next three years.

Rising Importance of College Degree

As competition for high-skill labor intensifies, corporations are increasingly reliant on universities to screen and train the next generation of workers. College degrees are becoming more and more of a necessity to live a stable, comfortable life.

The US’s steady shift towards technology has increased wage inequality by changing worker demand. According to a Georgetown University report, the US economy is expected to have 165 million jobs by 2020. Of which, 65% will require a college education. Jobs requiring higher levels of education, such as STEM and health-care related jobs, are projected to climb the fastest while lower-skilled jobs such as manufacturing will decline. This change in the economy leaves those without college degrees with far fewer employment opportunities.

Moreover, wage growth for these lower-skilled jobs may not keep up with the pace of inflation if demand for those jobs is oversubscribed. According to “Growing Wage Inequality, the Minimum Wage, and the Future Distribution of Retirement Income,” while the mean wage has increased, most of this wage growth is solely concentrated at the top. The wages of the near bottom have remained constant for the past three decades. In the U.S., the actual cost of living is rising faster than minimum wage growth. Without a proportional increase in wages, families have to save more and/or work longer hours to maintain the life they used to afford with the same wages. Families now have less to save, less to contribute to their 401K, and less credits for Social Security.

With higher costs of living and more jobs requiring higher skilled workers, college degrees are now required in order to guarantee a comfortable lifestyle and financial independence into retirement.

Education Should Not Be a Business

While education is meant to be the great equalizer of society, our for-profit college admissions system systematically precludes access to higher education for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of the rising necessity for college degrees in qualifying for early career opportunities, companies are incentivized to keep college test prep exclusive by raising rents up to the threshold that keeps only the wealthiest students at the top.  As parents spend more and more on college tutors, standardized test prep courses, and even private admissions counselors to help put together the perfect application, we watch the socioeconomic divide worsen for the next generation of Americans. Students who cannot afford to prepare or even have someone proofread their college applications miss out on the opportunity to get an education that has the power to change the trajectory of their life.

Additional Resources

Know anybody applying to college soon? Here is a list of resources to help them with the admissions process!

Khan Academy (in partnership with CollegeBoard)

Kaplan Test Prep

Online College Plan

If you would like to learn more about mentoring with CollegeSpring, or would like to become a mentor please visit collegespring.org/mentors or contact Bay Area Program Manager Monique Recoder at mrecoder@collegespring.org!

Take Home Points

As more students seek professional help in gaming the college admissions process, companies have seized the opportunity to deliver. Our college admissions process today remains a zero-sum game, which ensures that the cost of this supplementary education remains high and exclusionary. Nevertheless, CollegeSpring has shown that doing good doesn’t have to come at the expense of doing well. The company has grown at an astronomical pace, and students have been seeing immediate and profound results. CollegeSpring is just another example of how the best and most successful businesses can sprout from challenging the status quo.


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