The Meritocratic Myth of Harvard

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.

Unfair Advantage

Arcidiacono, Kinsler, and Ransom (2019) Table 1

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.

Arcidiacono, Kinsler, and Ransom (2019) Table 5

Harvard’s LDC admits have lower academic, extracurricular, and personal ratings than non-ALDC admits across all racial groups.

Disparate Impact

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.

Arcidiacono, Kinsler, and Ransom (2019) Table 11

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.

What Next?

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.

Twitter: @changhiskhan

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