‘Some rich kid will just buy my spot’: The disheartening message the college admissions scandal sent my New York City students

As a college advisor at City-As-School High School, one of the largest and oldest schools designed to re-engage students who choose to transfer high schools, this month’s college admissions scandal came as no surprise.

It’s not breaking news to me that the college admissions process tends to favor those already privileged in society. I watch it play out every day, as my colleagues and I fight to get our students into college — and to convince our students that they deserve that opportunity.

Our New York City students do not have parents who can afford to bribe anyone to ensure a spot on an college athletic team or in the freshman class of any university. They are racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, and many will be the first in their families to graduate high school.

When our students reach us, they are also often frustrated and disillusioned. Our students come from other high schools across the five boroughs, and at first they don’t believe us when we tell them their experience will be different at City-As. Then we start working with them on projects that engage and excite them, while building their academic skills.

Too often, I hear those students say they are not “college material,” even though they have already demonstrated the maturity, responsibility, and curiosity necessary to succeed in college. It is my job to help our students overcome this perception of deficiency and to help them recognize their strengths and capabilities.

But the recent scandal makes it even harder for our students to believe they have a fighting chance in college. They already think they cannot compete with students from across the country. The news offered an upsetting reminder of just another way the scales are tilted against them.

“See, Miss? I told you it doesn’t matter if I earn all my credits,” one student commented recently. “Some rich kid will just buy my spot.”

I point to the success of our alumni, who routinely return to City-As to speak to students and just to say thank you. They’re examples of young people who overcame tremendous obstacles and have created fulfilling, prosperous lives. Even when my students do believe that college is for them, though, it’s not simple to arm them with the tools they need to get there.

We host a college fair in our building every year, which alleviates the stress of having to compete with hundreds of students from more traditional schools for college representatives’ attention. We run a “Lunch and Learn” series where we serve pizza and have college representatives who understand our school talk to our students in small groups. We take students on college trips so they can envision themselves on campus. We also have hard conversations about the net cost of higher education — including books, materials, and cost of living — which students do not always see right away.

We provide guidance on how to prepare for entrance exams and other placement exams. As part of the city’s College Access for All initiative, we will be participating in SAT School Day for the third year, when every student has the opportunity to take the SAT for free surrounded by support in their school community, not on a Saturday at some strange location.

Our team of college advisors also trains school staff to write powerful letters of recommendation that can highlight our students’ strengths and unique qualities, especially those who have been on an upward trajectory since they enrolled at City-As. We want the people reviewing their applications to see the depth and passion of research in their portfolio projects and to ultimately recognize the potential our students will bring to their campuses.

In other words, we put a huge amount of work into this process — and our students put in even more.

College admissions scandals come and go, but every year, thousands of New York City seniors decide if and where they will attend college. My hope is that the experience of the students I serve will one day be no different than that of any other student across the country.

For now, I would be happy if the media would highlight the successes of students like mine, who followed the rules, worked hard, sought guidance, chose wisely, and are enrolling in the colleges they deserve to attend.

Ummi Modeste is a college counselor at City-As-School in Manhattan, a public transfer high school founded in 1972 as an alternative for struggling students.

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