The Common Affluence: supplementary educational services provide advantages to students from high-income households

Lulu and Madeleine LeTendre

A handful of the 1.7 million American students taking the SAT sit in a high school classroom, each possessing a different level of preparation for what is to come, each about to face the exam that plays one of the most central roles in their applications to attend college. Questions of readiness float about the room as students shuffle through their minds trying to recover formulas and reading strategies that they had not reviewed in a classroom for several years; that is, unless, they received paid assistance.
Throughout the United States, over two million students each year submit college applications to an average of seven schools with the hopes of attending college and obtaining a degree. A student’s rejection or acceptance from these schools will become one of the largest factors in his or her future opportunities and vocation choices.
From this pool of students, over half will choose to apply through an online program called the Common Application. Also known as the “Common App,” this website allows students to apply to up to 20 universities using only one application, which includes their academic background, standardized test scores, extracurriculars and a personal essay. The simplicity of the Common App has allowed for an increase in the number of overall applicants to each school and has therefore decreased the acceptance rates for many colleges across the country.   
In order to contend with this rising competition, many students and their families have sought other options to increase their chances of acceptance. This can be achieved through purchasing paid assistance, which gives those with more of a disposable income an apparent advantage over others.  
“The wealth of an applicant’s family has the power to create access to opportunities for that person, and those opportunities can lead to a more attractive application,” Marko Stepniczka (’19) said. “It’s unfair because at that point in life, any given applicant has no control concerning their financial status and unfair advantages can be gained.”
Standardized tests—mainly the SAT and ACT—are considered one of the most influential factors that determine if a student is college-ready; they also play a vital role in the applicant’s odds of admission. As these scores are viewed through percentiles in relation to the national performance, the use of private testing tutors has seen a steady increase as students are trying to achieve results that compete with their fellow student adversaries.
“ACT prep is helpful because it forces me to actually practice and keep up with a schedule, so I’m more likely to improve my score.” Leigh El-Hindi (’19) said.
In a survey of 243 Madison students, 52.5 percent of students report having received private tutoring for the SAT and ACT, which can cost thousands of dollars. These businesses offer extra practice and valuable test-taking skills that students use to drive up scores and stand out nationally.
“The tests are formatted so that it’s possible to get good scores with practice,” Michael Kim (’19) said. “So [students] who don’t have the privilege to prepare for the tests are somewhat destined to score lower than those with more resources to help.”
In a study conducted by the College Board in 2013, students with a greater household income are more likely to score higher on the SAT. Based off the 2400 point system—which was reformed to 1600 points in 2014—students with a family income under $200,000 had an average score of 1326, while students with over $200,000 had an average score of 1714.
Colleen Ganjian is an educational consultant who owns and runs DC College Counseling, located in Vienna, where she works with many high school students to aid them through the college process. According to Ganjian, this nearly 400 point difference can be bridged by the amount of time spent in preparation for the exam. Students who do not have the opportunity to have tutoring could receive the same score; however, it would take more time, effort and motivation.
“It’s pretty unheard-of for the students with whom I work to bypass test prep,”  Ganjian said. “So what that does is it raises the bar; you used to be able to get tutoring to get ahead but now you just have to do it to be on the baseline.”
Ganjian opened D.C. College Counseling in 2010, and it is one of the many businesses which offers college counseling. This relatively new industry is on the rise in the business and education world—similar to other college-based supplementary services—and helps guide students through navigating the Common App, drafting college essays and picking the right schools.
Eduventures, a marketing research firm that studies the business side of education, reported that parents are spending about $3.1 billion a year on supplemental education services, and that number is rising at a rate of about 10 percent a year.
“My clients are generally parents who are trying to position their kids in the best way possible,” Ganjian said. “They can have an expert help their child through the process, and it saves time, frustration and effort to outsource it to someone who does it all day.”
Even though prices are high, with some packages deals costing near $10,000, college counseling is especially useful when it comes to one of the hardest parts of the application: the essays. The Common App essay is an opportunity for students to express any struggles or interests that define them, and in some cases is the only element of the application that puts a voice behind the statistics.
“I definitely thought [having someone read over my essay] helped since the reader had actually worked in college admissions,” Ben Liu (’18) said. “They gave really good feedback about what exactly admissions officers are looking for.”
Not only do students submit one 250 to 650 word essay for the application, but many universities require additional supplementary writing pieces specific to the college of interest. This often causes more stress and can lead to unoriginal ideas and poorly-written essays that do not accurately reflect the writer. Many students try to overcome this obstacle by employing professional essay editors.
Although only 13.6 percent of Madison students hired someone to read over their essays, 48.4 percent of students said they would have if money was not a concern.
“I think it’s really stressful to try and stay on top of it all; it’s just so much harder now, and it didn’t use to be,” Ganjian said. “I think that sometimes families don’t realize how difficult the process is. When they start to figure it out, and see how many essays students have to write, they just get really overwhelmed and stressed out.”
Universities value more than just high test scores, though. Parents and grandparents who were financially able to attend expensive, highbrow schools, especially Ivy Leagues, are typically able to afford a more costly university for their children. These students, as legacies of top universities, already have an advantage even before finances become a concern.
Harvard University is one of the most competitive schools in the world, yet 30 percent of the incoming class is made up of legacies, and 71.3 percent of all students come from families with a household income above $80,000. This means that students who come from low-income families or aren’t legacies need to do more to stand out on their applications.
According to a study conducted by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at Harvard University, applications to a parent’s alma mater had a chance of admission that was seven times greater than that of a non-legacy.
“[Favoring legacies in the admission process] is fundamentally unfair because it’s a preference that advantages the already advantaged,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonprofit research organization. “It has nothing to do with the individual merit of the applicant.”
An issue of Stanford University’s magazine, STANFORD, addresses that this occurs because of money.
“Legacy preferences serve to reproduce the high-income, high-education and white profile that is characteristic of these schools.” STANFORD writers William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin said.
Though money has the ability to give an advantage in the college application process, family income overall does not determine whether students will be accepted into their dream schools. Madison’s Career Center aims to minimize the disadvantages that students from low-income households face.
“There are many free programs in place to guide all students in the college planning process,” Career Center Specialist Lynn Otto said. “Our counseling department offers a lot of post-secondary planning to the students, especially since the majority of our students go to college after high school.”
Through free information sessions, essay and financial aid workshops and standardized practice tests, Madison encourages every student to attend college. With its supplied aid, 81 percent of the Class of 2017 attended a four-year college, with 15 percent attending a two-year college.
There is a Testing and Education Reference Center in the JMHS Library Database System that offers over 300 practice tests and courses with a section to help students prepare for tests (SAT, ACT, PSAT, SAT Subject Test) or search for scholarships. Khan Academy is also a popular, free online website which has partnered with the College Board to help students prepare for the SAT.
“I like using Khan Academy SAT Prep because it gives personalized study materials based on your previous standardized testing scores for free,” Rachel Shoemaker (‘19) said. “It’s also easily accessible for most students.”
Students who come from families with higher household incomes do in fact attend more first-rate universities, yet fundamentally, excelling in the areas of standardized testing and grasping the Common App firmly relies on the effort put forth by the student. Furthermore, with a growing myriad of free and accessible resources, a student’s ability to be successful in his or her college application is now able to be refined to an extent in which it matches that of those who are able to afford college-based supplementary educational services.