GradGPT Editorial

Inequality in College Applications

The plight of students from lower income backgrounds and how can we fix the systemic inequality.
Published on
18 March 2024

The world outside our bubble...

Do you know how the son of a billionaire prepares for college? or what do college applications look like for the daughter of a bank clerk? The world looks very different outside our bubble, and when it comes to college admissions, it’s not the same for the rich and poor:

Meet Sarah and Michael: Two Students, Two Realities

Michael’s a high school student from Manhattan. He is sitting with his advisor, perfecting the pitch for a line of eco-friendly toys, set to appear on Shark-Tank next week. Michael’s “advisor” Tim, is a college consultant, whom his parents have hired for $120,000 / year, to guide Michael to an Ivy league university. The advisor has been working on a 2-year roadmap with Michael, with passion projects, course work and extracurriculars to build a student profile that’ll guarantee a seat in Yale. “Now it’s time for your fencing practice”, says Tim, as he and Michael close the studio lights.

In a survey of Harvard’s class of 2027, 23% of respondents said they had worked with a private college consultant.
The $3Billion industry of college consultants unraveled: a must read article

Sarah, a bright student from a working-class family, spends evenings juggling homework and a part-time job. College counselors at her overcrowded public school are stretched thin, leaving her to navigate the complex application process alone.  She can't afford expensive test prep, and is using borrowed books from her neighbour to prepare for SAT. The test format has changed this year, but she makes do with an older revision since most of the syllabus is similar. Sarah dreams of going to Princeton to study computer science, and is going to write an essay on how she got good test scores while handling a part-time job and nanny duties. Little does Sarah realise there are thousands more students with the same story as her, not only in the US, but all over the world, who will be applying to Princeton alongside her. But who is going to tell her?

Public schools in the US struggle with a staggering 450:1 ratio according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

And this reflects in the universities attendance. The top 10% richest make up 55% of the student population at Ivy league universities. In contrast students from below median income families (<50%) constitute only 11% of the population. (src: opportunity insights)

Top universities in the world have very few students from lower income backgrounds

The dangers of inequality

Gone are the days when you could be a high school graduate, find a job at the local factory and buy a house and a stable future. For people with no ancestral wealth, college education is a safety net for their child's future. When this system becomes so competitive that people resort to paying $1.5 million for getting a seat at top universities, it is a clear sign that something needs to change. College applications today have become the singular, most stressful event in the academic life of students. This has become a fertile ground for agencies and consultants who play on the fears of students and parents, charging atrocious amounts of money for things like reviewing college applications, $8000 for writing essays and more...

A parent posting about the stress of application season on reddit

Where is the real problem?

The debate around affirmative action has taken the center stage, but it is not as big of a problem as you think. Universities have already made great progress in reducing inequality: Diversifying admits, providing financial aid, removing commercialised test scores like SAT and more.

Contrary to the popular belief, standardised tests like SAT are not a good way to test across students from different backgrounds. Read this article for more insights.

Today, the problem we face is not of equal opportunity. The real problem is in the lack of support for a large segment of students:

  1. Low-income students do not apply to colleges in the first place: On average, it costs around $50 to apply to a single university. Add the cost of exams like SAT, CommonApp, documents all add up. The uncertainty of financial aid also deters many students from even trying to apply. This single factor casts a shadow on all the statistics we’re seeing so far.
  2. The students simply find the application process too overwhelming: A third of the students never submit their college applications (src). Heavily dominant behavior in the lower income segment.
  3. Throwing more counselors or financial aid at the problem isn't scaling: Teacher, academic and personal counselor shortages are widespread (src). We need innovative solutions to bridge this gap.
Many students quit on college applications due to cost and complexity

Solving the gap in college admissions

How can we create a system that's fair, affordable, and accessible, allowing students from all backgrounds to compete on a level playing field? Through 2 pillars:

  1. Technology - AI can be harnessed to make college applications more approachable. Large language models (LLMs) can power student support helplines, personalized recommendations, simplified applications, and guides for financial aid applications. At GradGPT, we're developing "virtual counselors", essay/profile reviewers, application timeline trackers and more. The eventual goal is to bring the guidance for a professional counselor to the fingertips of each student.
  2. Community - Online platforms like Reddit, Discord, and Quora demonstrate the power of community. When thousands of students connect, they create an invaluable support network. We need platforms that foster this collaboration. GradGPT's community ( is designed to be a resource hub for students navigating the college application journey.

This isn’t rocket science, we’re talking about solutions which have existed for years now, but no one is willing to drive this change. Sarah doesn’t have to be crippled by her financial status. Michael doesn’t need to have his childhood managed by consultants. If universities were to engage with technologists, we can create a more equitable system. Imagine a world where Sarah and Michael could both follow their dreams with confidence, wouldn’t that be something?

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