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How Admissions Really Work: If The College Admissions Scandal Shocked You, Read This

Sara Wong for NPR

The fallout — and fascination — continue from the massive college admissions scandal.

The University of Southern California has "placed holds on the accounts of students who may be associated with the alleged admissions scheme," the school said in a statementon its website. And lawmakers in Congress have already introduced legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for college students.

But many college students say they aren't surprised by the scheme, which involved bribing university coaches and test proctors to get wealthy students into some of the United States' top schools.

Whether you're fascinated by Olivia Jade Giannulli or furious at her parents for scamming the system, here are a few ideas to keep in mind.

There are lots of ways that wealthy families get a boost in the college admissions process. Most are quite legal.

Donations: It's no secret that well-off alumni give money to their alma maters. This cash can make a difference when the kids of these alumni grow up and apply to college. The issue came up last fall in theHarvard University admissions trial — which focused on the ways that the school factors race into admissions. That trial also lifted the veil on how the process can work, and among evidence presented were email exchanges between Harvard officials discussing connections between applicants and major donors.

Legacy admissions: Nearly half of private colleges and universities (42 percent) and 6 percent of public ones take into account whether an applicant's family members attended that school, according to Inside Higher Ed. Harvard officials defendedtheir use of legacy admissions in court filings, saying the practice helps connect the school with its alumni, whose financial support is essential.

Campus visits: Some colleges consider whether students "demonstrate interest" in their schools by making the costly trip to visit campus. But not every family can afford that trip.

Applying early decision: At many schools, students are more likely to be admitted in the early action or early decision cycles, which occur in the fall instead of the spring. But research shows that early options favor white and wealthy students.

College consulting and test prep: As The New York Times reported last week, some well-off families pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars for guidance from college consultants. These consultants are part of an entire industry devoted to getting wealthy teens into their schools of choice.

How important is it to attend one of these elite schools?

For most Americans, these schools represent more than a college degree — they're seen as a ticket to economic mobility. And getting into an elite college can make a big difference for low-income students, who end up making almost as much as their peers, according to research by a team based at Harvard.

But studies have also shown that going to a prestigious college doesn't make much of a difference in long-term happiness or life satisfaction.

This college admissions scandal is one part of a larger story about education. Don't forget the bigger picture.

Even when low-income students make it to campus, inequity continues.

"Universities have extended invitations to more and more diverse sets of students but have not changed their ways to adapt to who is on campus," Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Schools don't always set up students from underrepresented backgrounds — including those who are the first in their families to go to college and those from rural areas — for success.

Even before college, low-income students and children of color are at a disadvantage in school.

A report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rightspublished last year concluded, "The federal government must take bold action to address inequitable funding in our nation's public schools." Schools in America remain largely segregated — and those serving mostly students of color get $23 billion less than schools serving mostly white students, though both have the same number of students, according to a recent report from the nonprofit EdBuild.

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