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The US Justice Department recently released details on a criminal cheating conspiracy that prosecutors say helped rich parents get their kids into elite colleges. Parents allegedly paid around $25 million over eight years by parents to the founder of a college-preparation business, who would use the money for bribes to allow cheating on college entrance exams and get college sports coaches to designate students as recruits for their teams.

The case is a reminder of the massive inequalities embedded in US higher education, outside of the money-driven criminal schemes described in the indictment. Children of the wealthy benefit greatly from their parents’ ability to pay for tutors to improve grades, classes to raise standardized test scores, and in exceptional cases (paywall) to give large donations to schools that all but guarantee admission.

They also benefit from being able to go to college at all. Due to the cost of higher education in the US, parental wealth is an incredibly strong predictor of whether a child will graduate from college.

In 2017, less than half of all 25-34 year olds in the US had college degrees. Research by University of Michigan sociologist Fabian Pfeffer shows that low-income kids born in the 1980s have not been able to catch up. Now in their 30s, just over 10% of those born into the bottom fifth of household wealth have obtained a college degree (paywall). This compares with around 60% of kids in the top fifth of richest families.

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