Homework Therapists

Rigging higher education admissions

Posted May 02, 2018

Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: Flickr/Creative Commons

The retiring chancellor of the New York City public schools recently co-authored an editorial in The New York Times stating that, for academically talented high school graduates from working-poor families, access to selective colleges is extremely low, and that some colleges and universities have actually adopted admission policies that prevent merit-based admissions. 

The rub, it seems, it that admissions officers prefer students whose parents will eventually endow a new stadium or dorm, increasing the number of prospective freshmen to apply for early decisions and closing the door for middle-income students who may need financial aid. No wonder that among 38 selective colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students came from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

Children of alumni, almost all from the top economic quartile, account for 10 to 25 percent of the students at the top 100 universities. Among the Harvard class of 2021, 29 percent had a parent or close family relative who attended the school, whereas M.I.T., Caltech, and Berkeley don’t allot extra credit to legacies. 

Although high-school guidance counselors can help middle- and working-class students navigate college admission and financial aid, the national ratio of high-school students to counselors runs as high as 482 to 1—decreasing the odds of academically talented students attending top colleges.    

While some colleges may open up access to working-class students, they cull applications that give an advantage to the very wealthy, not just in their persistence of legacy admissions but through a back door reserved for students who may excel in sports that flourish in rarefied communities, such as lacrosse, squash, rowing, and fencing.

“The wealthy spend tens of thousands each year on private school tuition or property taxes to ensure that their children attend schools that provide a rich, deep college preparatory curriculum. On top of that, many of them spend thousands more on application coaches, test-prep tutors and essay editors. They take their children on elaborate college tours so that their children can ‘find the right fit’ at schools with good names and high graduation rates.”

To ensure favorable treatment for students from wealthy families is a new $100 billion tutoring industry, featuring neither a traditional tutor nor a straight-up therapist, to help mediocre students get ahead. According to Kyle Spence, also writing in the Times, parents pay from $200 to $600 for a regularly scheduled visit for coaching from kindergarten—providing subject tutoring, SAT prep, writing college essays, and strategies for keeping calm during a big exam. 

“Some therapists have teenagers create playlists on Spotify that express their feelings about homework. Some hand out blobs of scented putty, known as therapy dough, designed to calm. Others use meditation and mindfulness to refocus their charges on the hunt for a 4.0 and higher SAT scores.”

Homework therapists often advise middle and high school students on how to organize their schoolwork, develop sorting strategies, overcome negativity and increase self-esteem. School administrators have noted an uptick in the number of students who arrive each year with a neuropsychological evaluation, a costly extensive set of tests used to assess the student’s short-term memory, ability to focus, and possible learning deficits.  

Homework therapists might defend their interventions as helping these students to become fully functioning, independent adults, yet it can also be said that they are coddling children from kindergarten, through middle and high schools, and at the top 100 universities to the detriment of those academically talented lower-income children who have learned, pretty-much on their own, effective organizational skills, time management and stress management skills. 

While rigged college admissions rates may not cause economic inequality, it enables academically mediocre students to prosper, while shutting out or shunting away talented students from middle-income and working-class families. 

This blog has been co-published with PsychResilience.com