The College Admissions Scandal and Trump’s Assault on Working Class Students


The recent admissions scandal at Ivy League and other elite colleges confirms what everyone already knows: being wealthy and connected can guarantee getting into these schools. But the legal action taken by federal authorities in Massachusetts is only part of the story involving fairness—or the lack thereof—in higher education.

So-called “legacy” admissions favor the children of parents who are alumnae and give money to their college. Or, money alone can do it. A $2.5 million contribution reportedly paved the way for Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – a mediocre student – to be accepted at Harvard. These factors tilt the scales in favor of affluent students and against young persons who may have worked harder and achieved more, but who lack economic advantages. Because rich families who have attended elite colleges tend to be white, there is an important affirmative action component here also. Students of color remain less represented than if the admissions process were truly open.

The announcement of more than 50 indictments against prominent people blew the cover on techniques going well beyond the traditional “legal” ways of gaming the system. The ringleader received huge sums from parents and in return did things like arrange for impostors to take entrance exams, or create fake medical records to gain an applicant unlimited time to take SAT/ACT tests.

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts has exposed the fraudulent, illegal activities of cheaters. His actions stand in sharp contrast to the policies of President Trump. From the moment he took office, his administration began dismantling policies that protected college students from predatory actions by for-profit colleges.

Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, had no credentials for the job except coming from a billionaire family of Republican campaign contributors and having a history of supporting charter over public schools in her home state of Michigan. She has shown no interest in helping college students in general and low- and middle-income students in particular.

These students often turn to for-profit colleges in hopes of obtaining a degree that will be a ticket to economic stability. Their hopes often end in disappointment and they get stuck with debt they cannot repay. By any measure, for-profit colleges do not stack up well with public schools. Employment rates of graduates are lower, and degree holders may well earn less than high school graduates. Students of for-profits default on student loans at much higher rates. For-profits spend less of their budgets on the instruction of students – and more on advertising.

Although for-profit colleges like to portray themselves as champions of first-generation and low-income students, they are anything but that. The kicker is that because for-profits get most of their funds from government programs, taxpayers are ultimately footing the bill.

The Obama administration implemented rules to force for-profits to live up to their promises. If they lied to applicants, for instance, by inflating graduation rates or job prospects in their advertising, then students could seek relief from re-paying loans. DeVos came in and proposed to weaken students’ ability to defend against these deceptive practices. Students would be forced in many cases to repay loans even where a for-profit college went out of business before delivering a degree. When the rule withered on the vine because she could not produce data to support it, her agency simply slowed enforcing the existing Obama-era regulations.

DeVos has faced litigation and push-back on other proposed changes as well. And nearly than 20 states are moving on their own to rein in for-profit colleges. In New York a statewide coalition of which DC is a member is supporting the “For-Profit College Accountability Act.” If this legislation passes, it will accomplish in New York some of what Trump has failed to do for working class students nationally.

DC 37 members with federal student loans may be eligible for relief under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The union holds a monthly Student Debt Workshop; visit for information.

Also, the union’s Municipal Employees Legal Services Plan provides legal advice and representation in student loan matters for MELS-eligible members.  Call 212-815-1111.

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