KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They studied into the wee hours and agonized line by line over their personal essays. They took standardized tests three, four, five times to increase their scores. And last fall, after years of preparation and anxiety, the students at Ewing Marion Kauffman School, a predominantly black school in Kansas City, submitted their college applications, hoping all their hard work would pay off.
The students at Kauffman saw their charter school as something of an equalizer. The shiny, sprawling campus opened in 2011 on the city’s mostly black and economically disadvantaged East Side. Nine out of 10 students receive free or reduced lunch.
But this week, the students there, and at high schools across the country, were reminded by the nation’s largest admissions scandal that there is nothing equal about the process.
Students at Kauffman had their sights set on some of the same schools that wealthy parents used bribes to get their children into. It’s what the students call a harsh lesson in the limits of meritocracy.
“It’s frustrating that people are able to obtain their opportunities this way,” said Khiana Jackson, 17, a senior at Kauffman who has been accepted to the University of Chicago, but is waiting to hear from her top choices. “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough.”
“What does it take? You work every day, they still find a way,” she said.
The case underscored the racial and economic disparities that plague access to higher education. With an expansive network of pricey college preparation courses and counselors at their disposal, wealthy students find themselves with a leg up in the increasingly cutthroat competition for the limited slots at the most prestigious universities.
In an effort to diversify their student bodies, universities are recruiting students of different racial and economic backgrounds. But those opportunities can come with a backlash.
For students of color who have found their qualifications questioned when they arrive at elite campuses, the case was dispiriting.
“This scandal exposed the fact that there is a misplaced emphasis on so-called affirmative action inequities, rather than privilege,” said Mark Stucker, an educational consultant who hosts a weekly podcast called Your College-Bound Kid, which focuses on access and equity in education.
“That is the big travesty of college admission. People of means are able to tilt the system in their favor,” he said.
At Kauffman, all 39 of the seniors have already been accepted to college. But many are waiting to hear from their dream schools, and there’s a feeling that the deck may be stacked against them despite all their hard work.
Ms. Jackson is still waiting to hear from her top choices, Princeton and Yale. If she does not make it to the Ivy League, it would be hard to say whether something like the admissions scandal played a role. But just knowing that “some people did get in based on how much money they could hand somebody, it’s not fair,” she said.
On Wednesday, seniors at Kauffman discussed their experiences and the fallout of the scandal. The obstacles that they had to overcome were things that the children of the parents who bribed their way into schools could never imagine, they said.
Da’Shona Martin, 18, has had to work at Panera Bread to help her family pay the bills. She sometimes has to leave school early to make it to work on the bus. And when she works, she often does not make it home until late at night, and may not get to bed until 3 a.m., she said.
That left little time for homework, said Ms. Martin, who planned to attend Clark Atlanta University.
“Just knowing that due to circumstances outside of school, you do give your best in all that you can, but you also have to kind of balance being an adult,” Ms. Martin said. “To know that these parents are throwing money at all of these people and being like, ‘Can you do this for my child,’ it’s kind of discouraging. Some of us will probably have to work our whole lifetime to see money like this.”
Jennifer McReynolds and her husband prepared their son, Leonard, a senior at a Massachusetts prep academy, for college.
Their son applied to six universities, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. He took the ACT six times to increase his score and spent last summer studying for the test.
Ms. McReynolds and her husband, owners of a financial education company based in Atlanta, have drilled a message into their son: as an African-American student, you have to be better.
“Over and over we have told him that to be positively recognized, you have to have an incredible work ethic and you have to be above reproach,” Ms. McReynolds said. “You often hear talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and that college admission is based on merit. What this story tells me is that the playing field is not level based on race and wealth.”
In some cases, parents have been put in jail for lying about their residency so that their children can get into high-performing schools.
Getting into college is just one challenge for many students of color and their families. Paying for it is another.
Kielan Watson, 17, who plans to attend Vanderbilt University, said his father told him at a young age that he would have to pay for college on his own. With that in the back of his mind, Mr. Watson said he has been seeking scholarships, which have application processes that are even more rigorous than college admissions, he said.
Mr. Watson is a finalist for a Gates Scholarship, which would be a full ride, but applying for it has been demanding.
“There’s been a lot of nights where I was up thinking, ‘Is this the best version of myself that I can put in here?’” he said.
The fact that some students have to scrape by while the wealthy parents listed in the indictment threw around money to get their children access disturbed the students at Kauffman.
“I was mad at the fact that parents spent millions of dollars to pay these counselors to falsify test reports and in the meanwhile, I know everyone in here is figuring out how to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the rest of our college education,” said Jacob Esquivel, 18, who plans to attend the University of Miami.
But in a strange way, the advantages of wealth and privilege that some students may bring with them to college could make Ms. Jackson feel more confident when she arrives on a campus this fall, she said.
“I’m not going to feel like I’m at a disadvantage compared to them because I know that I have character, I have values that they haven’t had to develop,” she said. “They’ve had things handed to them. Having things handed to you versus having to earn the things you have, they create two different characters.”