The breadth and depth of the recent college admissions scandal took some Americans by surprise.
For Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, it helped reinforce why seven years ago she founded Latino U, a nonprofit organization that works to increase college enrollment and graduation rates for first-generation Latino students who are high achieving but come from lower-income households.
“As an organization, our focus was to help students through this complex process and to help students find the resources that more affluent families or second-generation families have access to,” Buontempo said.
On Apr. 25 at Pace University, Buontempo was part of a 10-member panel of educators, students and admissions officers that discussed the problems and inequities of the current system and what can be done to combat the problems.
Pace President Marvin Krislov said even before the scandal broke, roughly 40 percent of the country didn’t think the college admissions process was fair, one study concluded. It’s not only about access to money and having a strong GPA and test scores, but the system favors students and families who know which buttons to push for their benefit, he said.
“There are a lot of built-in advantages for people who have connections and understand the system and know how to work the system,” Krislov said.
Buontempo said even a $300 test prep class for a student can be too much for financially struggling families to absorb. She encounters many families where that money needs to be used to put food on the table, she said.
For students from minority families, particularly those who are the first in their family to go to college or with parents who have immigrated from another country, the challenges can be daunting. White Plains High School senior Michelle Maheda Perez said as a first-generation student – her parents immigrated from Colombia – she has sometimes felt the pressure to work to help her family make ends meet instead of studying or preparing for an important exam.
“That’s just not a luxury that we have,” said Perez, who will be going to the University of Pennsylvania next fall. “There are others just like me that can achieve great things. They just don’t have the money.”
Lisdy Contreras-Giron said making colleges more affordable and having more merit-based scholarships would help strong academic performers be able to attend the college of their choice regardless of means. Contreras-Giron, a Pace senior who will go on to law school in the fall, said she had to work two and three jobs while going through her undergraduate studies.
Andre Cordon, an enrollment manager at Pace, said finding the college that is the right fit for the student can be critical. Many students feel pressured going to a school with a prestigious name but might be better served finding one that fits their talents and interests.
“You might not be the right fit for USC or Harvard or Yale,” Cordon said, “They are great schools but there are schools where you can fit in well and be so successful.”
While there is unnecessary stress for students who are pressured into being accepted and to attend a big-name school, there are students on the other end of the spectrum, typically students of color or from lower-income families, where expectations are lowered, said Robina Schepp, Pace’s vice president of enrollment management.
Contreras-Giron said she experienced that in high school. Despite being a strong student, guidance counselors and teachers consistently recommended she go to community college. While that is a good choice for many students, Contreras-Giron said, she was motivated to push herself.
“It’s this idea that there could be more and they didn’t believe in me,” she said. “I didn’t go back to my guidance counselor until I had my acceptance from Pace.”
“It’s good to reach higher in terms of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and that might be going to a different place geographically,” Schepp added. “It might mean studying something that’s a more difficult subject for you. It might mean getting more involved on campus. I think it’s good for students to reach but I don’t think that necessarily means that you have to gain admission to a highly, highly selective institution.”
Buontempo said it’s also important for many students to identify schools where scholarship money or financial is more readily available.