It’s hard to snatch attention from the jaws of intrigue, and Varsity Blues had it all. There were fake SAT scores, a shady deal maker, and wealthy parents eager to lay waste to anything standing in front of their children on the road to a selective college—the vaunted status symbols that they are. This exposes the gritty underbelly of the race to get into America’s colleges, a common refrain went.
As my colleague Alia Wong noted shortly after the scandal broke, these sorts of high-stakes admissions antics represent only a fraction of college admissions—a small one at that—because most colleges aren’t that selective. More than 80 percent of students attending bachelors-degree-granting colleges go to those that accept more than half of their applicants, according to an Atlantic analysis. These not-so-selective schools are the big picture of higher education, the forest so many miss while examining in microscopic detail the bark and leaves of a few “top-tier” trees.
A pair of new reports show how even looking at that bigger forest still misses the wider world that it grows on and that shapes it. On Wednesday, the National Center for Education Statistics released new data showing a 50-percentage-point gap—that’s right, 50 percentage points—in college-going rates between students who come from the highest-earning families and the lowest earning. Of students who entered ninth grade in 2009, 78 percent of those from the wealthiest 20 percent of families were enrolled in college seven years later (in 2016), whereas just 28 percent of students from the lowest quintile were.