Privilege, race, and admissions at elite universities
This week a judge ruled in favor of Harvard in the now-famous SFFA v Harvard case, which I wrote about in a previous post. The judge found there was “no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans”. Whether you agree with the ruling is beside the point; what’s interesting is the admissions data made public as a result of the legal proceedings.
In a very recent paper, Arcidiacono, Kinsler, and Ransom analyzed Harvard’s admission data focusing on athletes, legacies, dean’s interest lists, and children of faculty/staff (ALDC). Their study uncovers two very interesting insights: first, there’s overwhelming evidence that Harvard’s admissions strongly favors applicants with privilege; second, race preferences affect Asian-American applicants 7 times more than White applicants.
The authors found that while the admit rate for non-ALDC applicants was roughly 6% while the admit rate for ALDC applicants ranged from 33.6% (legacy) to 86% (recruited athletes).
Privilege is unequally distributed. While 40% of non-ALDC applicants are white, 70% of legacy applicants are white. The overall effect is that athletics, legacy, and donors account for almost half of the admitted White students.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow tries to argue that this is because legacy applicants are more self-selecting, better put-together, and looks very good relative to the general pool. The data blows his false narrative out of the water.
While a non-ALDC applicant with an academic rating of 2 (out of 5 with 1 being the best) has a 10% chance of being admitted, an LDC applicant with the same academic rating has a 49% of being admitted. For a recruited athlete, it’s 96%.
Another way to look at it is to analyze only the admitted students. If what Bacow says is true, the scores for admitted students shouldn’t be different. Instead, what we find is that Harvard’s LDC admits have lower academic, extracurricular, and personal ratings than non-ALDC admits across all racial groups.
Harvard’s LDC admits have lower academic, extracurricular, and personal ratings than non-ALDC admits across all racial groups.
The paper’s authors simulated a hypothetical class without preferential criteria. If we remove ALDC preferences, the effect across racial groups is, surprisingly, not very significant. White students would decrease by about 6% while Hispanic and Asian-American admits would rise 7–9%. African-American admits would remain largely the same. Instead, removing ALDC preferences drastically rebalances within race groups. Even if we only look at White students, first-time college students and those receiving financial aid would rise by a factor of 3.
If we also remove race preferences, the effect is even more interesting. Both African-American and Hispanic students would be drastically reduced in this case. Now, it would be tempting to look at this evidence and feel that race preferences pit the Asian-American against the African-American and Hispanic communities. However, if we compare the effect on White vs Asian-Americans, the real story emerges. While removing race preferences only increases White students by roughly 7%, it would increase Asian-Americans by 50%. Selecting a diverse class is a completely legitimate goal, but Asian-American applicants are made to bear all of the cost of achieving it.
Selecting a diverse class is a completely legitimate goal, but Asian-American applicants are made to bear all of the cost of achieving it
US labor law has a concept of disparate impact, which says that even if the formal rules are neutral, a system (admission) is still discriminatory if a group of people (Asian-Americans) in a protected class (race) is adversely affected much more than other groups.
The light that this case has shed on the admissions process at elite American universities is extremely valuable. Working-class or disadvantaged white Americans should now know that it isn’t affirmative action or race preference that’s blocking them from getting into Harvard. Instead, it is preferences for privilege (ALDC) at these elite educational institutions.
Asian-Americans should also stop seeing this as a zero-sum game between Asian-American v African-American/Hispanic communities. The problem isn’t diversity as a goal. Instead, the problem is that the cost of achieving this goal falls only on Asian-Americans.
Perhaps most alarming is the trend over time. Harvard’s preference for privilege (ALDC) has more than doubled over the past two decades. Regardless of the outcome of this case, Harvard (really all of our elite institutions) needs to drastically change admissions policies, or it needs to stop pretending that it is an institution for “societal leaders” in an America that takes pride in the values of fairness and meritocracy.