When the news hit about the higher education admissions scandal dubbed Varsity Blues, in which wealthy parents perpetrated fraud to get their children into prestigious colleges and universities, we at the American Indian College Fund were not only disappointed, frankly, we were angry. After all, the accused individuals have every advantage that wealth and, social connections can give them yet they faked learning disabilities, test scores, athletic prowess, and even the ethnicities of their children. Not only did they rob a seat in those institutions from a more deserving student, they robbed their own children of their self-respect and confidence in their own abilities.
We wish we could say that we were surprised but we were not because entitlement through wealth, class, and race creates gross inequity in our nation, and we know only too well that inequity extends to higher education institutions.
The people served by the American Indian College Fund and other organizations that facilitate access to higher education for American Indians and Alaska Natives know intimately that entitlement and inequity severely limit their educational options and resources.
At the College Fund we don’t let these barriers stand in our way. We don’t let scandals and admissions bias limit options for Native American students. Instead, the Varsity Blues scandal reinforces the importance of our work: equitable access to higher education.
We know that systemic inequity has long existed in the college admissions process.
Wealthy parents can donate to an endowment and for naming rights on a building. In return, their children are often admitted as students. Colleges and universities admit alumni’s children, giving them legacy status, with an eye on future support. And wealthy parents can afford the many tools available to improve the odds of their children’s admissions: applications coaches, testing services, and classes and workshops to improve test scores and college essays. They can even support sports and hobbies that give an advantage in the student’s admissions experience.
There is also the obvious admissions advantage for wealthy people: they can afford to pay their children’s full room, board and tuition at prestigious private colleges and universities that do not have large endowments. These institutions have admissions processes are called “need aware” as opposed to “need blind.” By ensuring during the admissions process that applicants can cover the costs without scholarships or worse, crippling student loans, these institutions ensure their own costs are covered.
These advantages don’t exist for low-income students and students of color. There are not wealthy parents in our communities who can make large gifts to institutions. Sports and other opportunities such as art and music are generally limited to what schools and youth organizations can provide. Having a testing tutor is practically unheard of in the communities we serve.
And to make a difficult situation even more challenging, once lower-income students or students of color are enrolled, there are a myriad of ways that college campuses make them feel unwelcome. Not the least of which is barriers to affordability that are not the case for wealthier families.
The higher education system in the United States was not created to be equitable. It was created to maintain the privilege and access of those who have the relationships and the financial resources to pursue college. While it true that things have changed over time, elite institutions, in particular, have a long way to go.
For American Indians and higher education, numbers tell the story. Only 14% of American Indian people age 25 and older have a college degree—less than half of that of the general population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The American Indian College Fund knows we must do more than provide scholarships for Native American students to access college. We must change the environment at colleges and universities to be more welcoming to Native people and other people of color. These efforts, along with financial access to college and tools for academic and social success, can increase the number of Native Americans with a college degree, resulting in increased opportunities for graduates, their families, and communities.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a press conference on March 12, “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and I’ll add there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either.”
In a wealthy country like the United States, everyone who wants the opportunity to better themselves through education should have it. Along with the rest of American Society, native people know that an education is essential to a good quality of life. We believe in higher education as a resource that ensures the strength of our tribal nations and of the United States.
At the American Indian College Fund, we create true pathways to college access, removing barriers to admission, and providing resources that improve student success. We will continue to work so that every Native American who wants to go to college has that opportunity.
Cheryl Crazy Bull is president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, a national non-profit that provides scholarship support for Native American students and cultural and place-based program support for tribal colleges and universities.
Learn about how college campuses can create equitable institutions for Native Americans and other students of color. Download a copy of Creating Visibility and Healthy Learning Environments for Native Americans in Higher Education. You can also request a printed copy by sending an email to [email protected].