skip to main content
How the College Admissions Scandal Affects Diversity & Inclusion

How the College Admissions Scandal Affects Diversity & Inclusion

by Ella Washington

Story Highlights

  • Student homogeneity prevents gaining the new perspectives college should provide
  • Lack of diversity in college leads to lack of diversity in business
  • These easy paths to college for a few come at the expense of all

Recently, 50 people were charged with making or accepting bribes so that students who might not otherwise be accepted could gain admission to elite colleges.

The scandal has garnered a lot of attention -- crime is interesting -- but it's a minor problem compared with this: Despite the moderate success of decades of government and higher education programs to increase ethnic and economic diversity on campus, an achievement gap persists.

  • Up to 40% of low-income high school students who are admitted to college don't attend.
  • Of those who do enroll, only 14% graduate.
  • The college dropout rate is highest among minority students.
  • The enrollment rate is lowest among rural students.

As a result, college campuses lack diversity and so do the businesses that hire college graduates.

And while a years-long conspiracy involving corrupt academic officials and wealthy parents from California to Connecticut is appalling, the consequences of deficient diversity are worse.

Diversity Is a Need-to-Have, Not a Nice-to-Have

Colleges need diversity in campus demographics to provide students with the opportunity to encounter new ideas and viewpoints. A multiplicity of outlooks gives all students valuable learning opportunities and teaches them to find value in unfamiliar perspectives. Homogeneity in demographics can narrow students' worldviews -- the precise opposite of higher education's mission -- and constricts their education.

Inevitably, that lack of diversity results in college graduates who are mostly white, mostly urban and mostly affluent -- which also describes the candidate pool from which most businesses recruit.

That uniformity is as damaging for companies as it is campuses. Leaders know that homogenous teams have a tendency toward groupthink and unidentified blind spots, while diverse teams perform better, are more innovative, are more profitable and reach better decisions than less-diverse teams. That's likely why two-thirds of executives say that hiring diverse candidates is important -- a variety of perspectives is a business advantage in a competitive environment.

Colleges need diversity in campus demographics to provide students with the opportunity to encounter new ideas and viewpoints. A multiplicity of outlooks gives all students valuable learning opportunities and teaches them to find value in unfamiliar perspectives.

But higher ed's environment is competitive as well -- and to many, retaining more students is an economic necessity.

Higher Income, Lower Numbers

College enrollment is down for the sixth year in a row. Only 34% of colleges hit their recruitment targets in 2017. Eleven private schools have closed every year since 2015, a pace Moody's Investors Service says will likely increase. An average of just one in three first-year students returned to school for their sophomore year between 2013 and 2016 -- indeed, only about 40% of students who enroll in college graduate.

To reverse this trend, many admissions departments are focusing on higher-income, out-of-state and transfer students. That makes good financial sense, but it ratchets up the competition among colleges, does little to increase the overall student population, and does nothing to create more diversity on campus or in recruitment pools for business.

A far better strategy is to recruit and keep a bigger group of students. And if that population is diverse, businesses will benefit from a richer candidate cohort and colleges will better fulfill their mission.

Barriers to Entry

The challenge is that low-income and minority students have enormous barriers to college entry. The most pervasive of which are financial and social.

Though most families find college prohibitively expensive, simply applying can be beyond the means of many students. It costs almost $60 to take the ACT or SAT (each time a student takes either) and around $50 to apply to a college. Oh, and the College Board recommends students apply to five to eight schools.

That's nothing compared to tuition, of course. Students are wary of borrowing to finance their education, and they should be: Gallup research shows that graduating with more than $50,000 of student debt is linked to lower health outcomes and decreased financial security. Those are life-altering consequences.

Then consider that only 34% of current students believe they'll graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the job market, according to a 2017 Strada-Gallup 2017 College Student Survey, and it's easy to understand why so many feel college isn't worth the cost.

Further, minority candidates face psychological and social barriers -- including lack of self-confidence, miscommunication between student and faculty, and racial insensitivity -- that their peers don't endure. Indeed, black and Hispanic students are much more likely than white students to say that it seems like everyone has college figured out but them.

Add to that the personal problems some individuals face -- long commutes, family issues, inadequate high school preparation -- and college can easily feel like an expensive gamble with rules written by and for the privileged.

Only 34% of current students believe they'll graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the job market.

The recent admissions scandal seems to confirm the accuracy of that perspective. Though it's hard to say if the conspiracy precluded any student's admission -- several lawsuits, however, claim it has -- it may reinforce a feeling among less-privileged students: college wasn't meant for them.

That assumption contributes to the dismal graduation rate of ethnic and economic minorities. Meanwhile, individuals, schools, businesses and the economy are all poorer for it.

Strategic Solutions for Meaningful Outcomes

Solving enrollment and retention challenges is enormously difficult, and colleges and universities have an uphill battle. However, Gallup's quantitative and qualitative research on education can help colleges retain students -- and improve their lives during and after college.

Gallup's higher education studies includes research spanning thousands of students over the course of decades, and it indicates that thriving campuses have thriving student wellbeing. A well-understood, well-articulated leadership strategy -- built on analytics proven to boost wellbeing on campus -- can help leaders make decisions that better the student experience, especially the experience of students from less-privileged backgrounds.

For instance, the Strada-Gallup Alumni Study (now Gallup Alumni Survey) shows that graduates who can strongly agree they had "instructors who cared about [them] as a person," "at least one instructor who made [them] excited about learning," and "a mentor who encouraged [them] to pursue [their] goals and dreams," are significantly more likely to have positive work and life outcomes. Alumni who can claim those experiences tend to believe college was worth the cost, regardless of their demographic background.

However, those experiences may be particularly meaningful for ethnic and economic minority students -- especially those who feel like everyone has college figured out but them. And measuring those experiences and the impact on students is vital for a school's D&I initiatives. Minority alumni with those experiences can become powerful advocates for the school as well, especially in diverse communities.

Businesses can and should lend a hand. Leaders with knowledge of the minority experience -- who have time and funding to spare -- can have a huge impact on potential students who face real barriers to education.

Mentoring is its own reward, of course, but helping higher ed attract and retain a more diverse range of students through graduation will create a better-educated society -- and a larger population of diverse, well-educated job candidates and higher-paid customers, too.

The Real Crime

Think about that as the bribery story unfurls. While 50 people were charged with a crime, thousands -- maybe millions -- of kids are getting the idea that education is not for them.

The sad part is, many of those students aren't wrong.

Though most parents don't commit crimes to get their children into college, wealthy white kids are far more likely to graduate with a degree than other demographics are. Simply put, the barriers to entry are lower for them.

And yet, they're insurmountably high for others.

All the kids who could have, and should have, gone to college but didn't will pay a price for that. But so does everyone else.

Colleges have fewer students from less diverse backgrounds, which results in a poorer educational environment. Businesses have fewer talented workers, which results in less innovative organizations. People have fewer opportunities to learn, grow and develop the life they want to live.

And that's a crime, too.

Partner with Gallup to champion your mission or purpose by measuring the issues that matter most:


Ella Washington, Ph.D., is a Diversity and Inclusion Subject Matter Expert at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030