Why colleges are obsessed with how you use your resources

Universities feel uncomfortable being a bastion for the rich and lucky. So colleges started screaming from rooftops (and courtrooms) about how admissions are based on subjective, hard-to-measure merit. But kids who are poor have much more difficulty displaying their merits, so colleges changed their language. Now colleges look at how kids have leveraged the resources they have.

This system gives a boost to a kid who has good grades and took care of three younger siblings throughout high school. This system penalizes a kid who lists travel as an extracurricular since it just means their parents can afford fun trips. It’s great for homeschoolers, because you get extra time during the day to leverage resources you have while other kids are tied up in school.

But really, colleges want to see that the applicant has worked very hard.

Proper leveraging of millionaire parents means the kid is working very hard at something that requires a lot of money, because it would be too easy to win at something where you competed against poor kids. Squash, figure skating, Science Olympiad, violin soloist. These are achievements that require not just hard work and talent, but also a steady stream of money.

The ultimate example of “using available resources well” is equestrian jumping. Destry Spielberg competes against Eve Jobs and Jessica Springsteen (pictured up top). Jennifer Gates and Georgiana Bloomberg were also competitors when they were in high school and college. But then their parents bought them each an equestrian team. (And for Jen, a husband.)

Which brings me back to the question of how colleges can tell when someone has used their resources well. At some point the difference between merit and well-spent money seems indistinguishable to the naked eye. Does Jennifer get credit for being on the winning team if her dad bought the team and then added Jennifer to the roster? Maybe Georgina gets credit for convincing her dad to pave the way for her dreams: she’s a go-getter.

The difficult thing about showing colleges what you can do with what’s available to you is that you might fail. And then it’s hard to articulate how you made good use of resources. The great thing about money is that you can use it to wallpaper over mistakes, so everything looks like a winning effort. On a college application, that means there’s no wasted summer opportunity, no failed independent project, no idea that you couldn’t finish.

So I guess to colleges, getting in on one’s merit when you’re really rich means one’s ability to continually maneuver out of a difficult situation so that it comes out well for you. If you can do that in high school, then you probably have the tools to do it for the rest of your life.

3 replies
  1. Maura
    Maura says:

    It’s ironic really that colleges snd Universities are so hung up on proving the applicants have used resources so well.
    “Open the Books.Com” audits every municipality and university in the country and their findings indicate that the Ivy League schools receive so much government funding that tuition is secondary to their bottom line. You read that right. The Ivy League Schools are paid more in our tax dollars than they receive in tuition, annually. In a way they aren’t really schools at all but Government Contractors.
    Along with all that money comes some heavy indoctrinating principles which become mandatory in the “curriculum.” The Ivy’s aren’t the only ones but they get the most. Student Loan money acts in a similar way but not quite as egregiously.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So interesting that you bring up the point that schools are government contractors. Because it drives me nuts that I can only read abstracts of journal articles. The government funds the journals that publish articles written by professors paid by government funded universities and the only people who have access to the articles are university students who are study with government funding. The whole thing is absurd. Everyone should be able to read the articles. It’s like, those paywalls are keeping out the 1% of the non-university population that pays for the articles with their taxes and would like to read them.


  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I don’t see the upper middle-class obsession with what exactly colleges do and don’t value as helpful to the education of a child. I wouldn’t worry about these rich kids; they’re all going to get in somewhere decent, because their parents are going to donate a building. They don’t really have to think about it that much. Sure, they get their yonks on the equestrian team, rather than basketball, but maybe that’s mostly because their parents don’t have to worry about them accidentally associating with the poors (except for the occasional enticing stable hand).

    I find the idea of childhood being an unfolding and discovery of what it is that children truly love to do much more compelling. I think we have to push those college concerns to the margin and focus on the now. Life is long, and you can always change your mind and study something else afterwards if you want to.

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