Income-based admissions to colleges would lead to divorces?

The New York Times has a story about how colleges might switch from admitting students based on race to admitting students based on income. But what would stop a traditional married couple from getting divorced prior to their children applying to schools? In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley reported on Korean parents getting legal (but not practical) divorces in order to improve their children’s chances of admission to elite universities that had established preferences for children of single parents.

If two parents of a Harvard aspirant got a sham divorce, and only one of them had an income, the applicant could claim to be estranged from the high-earning parent and therefore be the child of a destitute family (this article says that the non-custodial parent’s income is not considered for calculating Federal and state financial aid).

A stay-at-home mother friend of mine often jokes about how if she and her husband would get legally divorced she could then obtain an array of valuable assistance from taxpayers, notably free health insurance and food (via SNAP or “food stamps”). Could the possibility of otherwise-impossible admission to the Ivy League for her children push her over the edge into implementation?

[Separately,  The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way notes that in the countries with high-performance education systems, there is only one way to get into a top college: score well on a national exam (a 50-hour essay-heavy test in Finland). Family background and wealth are not considered.]

8 thoughts on “Income-based admissions to colleges would lead to divorces?

  1. Yes, when I went to school in the 80s, they schools were clear that admission decisions were a separate decision from financial aid decisions. It seems best to keep it that way.

    Somehow as a culture we have turned 180 degrees away from meritocracy, which social justice warriors will now say is racist and sexist, and turned back towards “heritage”.

  2. >Separately, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way notes that in the countries with high-performance education systems, there is only one way to get into a top college: score well on a national exam.

    This used to be the system in the US until the 1920s, and then “too many” Jews starting showing up. That’s when Harvard switched to a “highest class rank” system in order to increase “diversity” (code word for fewer big city Jews and more Gentile valedictorians from Iowa) and also to “holistic” admissions where you looked for “well rounded” students (code word for not Jewish, preferably athletic). Does any of this sound familiar? – it should because this is the same system we still have today until the present day, even if it is no longer used to exclude Jews (now it’s used to exclude Asians instead).

    Read Karabel’s The Chosen for the whole sordid history:

    and once you do, I guaranty that you will lose all respect for our current system of admissions. I can’t think of another major system in our society that was born in such shameful circumstances and yet has managed to retain its respectability and remain in use.

    Starting in the ’60s, universities switched from discriminating against Jews to “positively” discriminating in favor of (certain) minorities, but the well oiled structure for discrimination was already in place so it was easy to change its goals a little.

    The bottom line is that in a homogeneous country like Finland, there are no forces pushing against a pure merit system, but in multi-ethnic countries where you have some groups who are more talented academically than others (admission purely by test Stuyvesant High in NY is 3/4 Asian now) you end up with racial quotas instead of merit admissions (there is talk of “fixing” Stuy).

  3. you assume every one has equal access and methods for preparing for this kind of test will be uniform. It is probably true for small country (population wise) like Finland but not for diverse countries like US and India.

    here in India, my state – Tamil Nadu moved from an entrance exam for engineering admission (say GRE equivalent) to another criteria Final High school score (we have state level exam for students at 10 grade and 12 grade) based on Math + science scores. Lots of students from rural background are entering our top engineering colleges now, which to me is a good thing. Lots of affluent people hate it, because now they are not able send their kids to year round cram school to crack one 3 hour exams. Also we have had reservations/quota for past 30 years, which does a reasonable job of getting access to disadvantaged student (but needs some tweaks actually add some more criteria)

    No system is perfect (it is about benefits outweighing challenges that matters) and need to have a system that adopts and evolves but it naive to assume kids from $100K income household that go to good public schools and kids from troubled neighborhoods with single or no parent that attend barely existing schools are in equal footing and can take one national exam.

  4. If they get divorced to game the system and continue to live in the same home, this is definitely a loophole. But if they need to prove to financial aid officers that they’re maintaining 2 separate households, the cost of an additional household approaches the college tuition they will collect. My experience with financial aid, both at a private college and more recently at UVa, is they scrutinize pretty carefully. Do any financial aid officers reading this weblog have first-hand experience with kids whose parents divorce shortly before the February FAFSA deadline in the kid’s senior year of high school?

  5. have a feeling this scheme wouldn’t work for elite colleges, viz., “Many private colleges do consider the non-custodial parent as a potential source of support, and require a supplemental financial aid form from the non-custodial parent. This affects the awarding of the school’s own aid, but not Federal and state aid.” (from source you cited above) Since my own kids weren’t offered significant federal aid (5.9% $2500 Stafford loan), their financial aid came directly from college endowments. I don’t think my divorce would have duped them for a minute – they would have gone after my spouse immediately since my own meager income would have qualified them for massive grants. Are a higher proportion of children of divorce at state schools as a result, or are private schools successful at extracting money from a wealthy non-custodial parent? I would speculate the exceptions would be in states where the age of emancipation is higher than 18, e.g., NY, MS, MA, DC, where it’s 21. (However, DC has $10,000/year incentive to attend a school like Michigan or Penn State so wouldn’t be the best example)

  6. While a fake divorce could be regarded as unethical, it seems like if you are a family with around $500K of savings (excluding qualified retirement accounts) a more honest way to surmount the high cost of college tuition is to spend down your assets until you are poor enough to qualify for financial aid. At least you can enjoy nice vacations, expensive cars, whatever consumer activity provides some gratification. Seems like the current financial aid environment mostly punishes middle class families for having saved any money at all.

  7. concur with Henry that strategy of spending with abandon, including private grade school tuition and Whole Foods loyalty, would yield more financial aid than frugality. They will take every penny of stocks, bonds, etc., that they possibly can, with the exception of retirement accounts you noted. However, for whatever the reason, the Ivies (and maybe some other schools) allow a family a second home, so you’re better off buying a beach or ski condo for cash at some point before your child matriculates.

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