Written by NYC Outward Bound Schools President & CEO Richard Stopol
The college admissions scandal that has been so present in the news this past week has thrown into bold relief how fundamental issues such as privilege and equity play out in our country and lays bare the two-tier educational system that is baked into our society to the great detriment of so many NYC Outward Bound Schools’ students.
As this letter from Jessica Sasko, our Director of College Supports makes plain, the college admissions process is rife with examples of how parents and students of means are able to manipulate the system, legally, to their benefit in ways that are simply not available to their less advantaged counterparts. Indeed, as Jessica points out, the unfairness of the situation is exacerbated by the fact that not only do our students – almost all of whom will be the first in their families to attend college – lack the knowledge and means to work the system in this way, they are actually burdened with additional obligations, most of which are related to financial aid, that make it more difficult for them to apply to and enroll in college.
The work we do at NYC Outward Bound Schools is part of a broader effort to bring more equity to our educational system. Equity is one of those words that means different things to different people, but at its essence, it is about closing the opportunity gap that exists in our city and country – the gap that gives some children access to fewer resources than others and confers advantages on some children that others don’t have.
As Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist recently put it, “talent is universal even if opportunity is not.” If there is one thing our 30+ years working with NYC’s young people has taught us, it is that they have an amazing array of talents and are brimming with potential, but too often, are lacking the opportunities that will allow them to unleash those talents.
The college admissions scandal is a particularly glaring example of the opportunity gap in action, as is legacy admissions, but there are countless other instances where the young people with whom we work are prevented from reaching their potential because they are cut off from the kind of social capital that those with more advantages routinely have access to and sometimes take for granted. For example, our students rarely, if ever, are able to tap into the social networks that will help them land a summer internship or result in a well-placed phone call to the admissions office of a college they have their heart set on attending. The economic deck is also stacked against them, which means that they can’t afford the tutors, coaches and other supports that help to give more affluent students a leg up.
As Jessica writes in her letter, a big part of what she and her college counselor colleagues do is try to do some leveling of the playing field for our students. They act as surrogates for those high-end coaches by advocating on students’ behalf, encouraging and supporting them as they navigate the complex world of college admissions, and connecting them to social capital wherever they can.
In a larger sense, what we do as an organization is attempt to redress the playing field imbalance by attempting to ensure that our students have access to the full range of educational opportunities that should be available to all young people, regardless of their background or circumstance. It’s a shame that the field is so tilted and that it requires so much leveling. But it is a privilege to be working every day alongside so many others – our staff, board, teachers, principals, counselors, and all our other friends and supporters – who share our commitment to doing the leveling work that is needed to close the opportunity gap.
It is only when we have addressed that gap that the promise we hold out to our citizens that we are a nation where everyone gets a fair shake and a legitimate shot at success will become a reality.