10/31/2012 09:51 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

When It Comes to College, the Rich Get Richer

I thought I couldn't get much more discouraged about the current state of higher education.

I was wrong.

This year's Inside Higher Ed Survey of College Admissions Directors makes one message abundantly clear: when it comes to assessing college applicants, many schools value money, first and foremost.

So much for fair-minded visions of colleges and universities as elevated bastions of fairness, equity, and leveling of the playing field -- separate from the material concerns of the rest of society.

Instead, colleges are now freely admitting the open secret that they tip the odds and open the door wider to welcome the well heeled.

According to the survey, 54 percent of admissions directors indicated that this year they will increase their school's efforts to recruit "full pay" students, who do not need any financial aid. This stated interest in wealthy students was highest at private four-year colleges, at 59 percent.

Colleges want these deep-pocketed students so badly that in last year's survey, admissions officers at 10 percent of colleges acknowledged that they are admitting full-pay students who have lower grades and test scores than other admitted applicants.

Think your local public university will at least help even the odds and give your hardworking middle-class kid a fair shake?

Guess again.

Among public institutions, an overwhelming majority of admissions directors indicated that this year they would again be increasing their efforts to recruit more out-of-state students. Why? They pay higher tuition, of course!

Silly me. I thought colleges were looking for good students, regardless of their provenance. At a time when affirmative action admissions policies are under review by the Supreme Court, it appears that the race argument may be moot. The only color these schools seem to be interested in is green.

Goodbye, meritocracy; hello, plutocracy.

I often wonder how wealthy students admitted under preferential policies must feel about themselves and their putative accomplishments. It can't feel good to wonder if the admissions rep really liked you... or just your parents' money. That's got to exact an emotional price.

When a degree is something you buy with money rather than something you earn based on merit, how much weight can it realistically carry? The answer is that it shouldn't carry much.

It's not just in-state students feeling the brunt of these materialistic policies. All Americans should be saddened to learn that these preferential policies extend to recruiting students from abroad. Of course, the priority in recruiting more international students once again focuses on targeting those who are "full pay."

Colleges generally defend these practices by arguing that they use the "extra" money they receive from wealthy students to award more financial aid to the needy students they admit. In other words, they redistribute it.

Of course, the need to extract as much money as possible from the wealthy students is one of the main drivers of high, unaffordable tuition, but that's another issue. It sounds to me, however, as though the wealthier students will soon be crowding out more un-wealthy ones, rendering this argument largely theoretical.

It also seems as though the implied role of the poorer students admitted on their own basis is to redistribute their hard-earned merit to the students admitted on other grounds. Students accepted because of their full-pay status, rather than because of their grades, must hope that some of that hardworking group cred will rub off on them so they look better on paper.

Unfortunately, when college becomes a luxury purchase for wealthy families, this undermines the prestige of the very product they thought they were acquiring. By weighing privilege over accomplishment, these colleges are discrediting the degrees they award and diminishing themselves.

At some point, these financially-motivated biases have to begin to backfire and stigmatize the degree holders and the schools that practice such need-aware admissions. Employers need to recognize these changing admissions practices and in response focus more of their own recruiting attention on locating qualified applicants of real worth... not of mere wealth.