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4 Ways College Admissions Committees Stack the Deck in Favor of Already Privileged Applicants

It's time to stop stigmatizing affirmative action as an "unfair advantage" for historically unrepresented groups.

Affirmative action has been the subject of much media debate recently, as the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments on October 10 involving the controversial Fisher v. University of Texas “reverse racism” case. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, alleges that she was declined admission to the university as a result of affirmative action policies that left her at a disadvantage because she is white.

Contemporary debates about affirmative action policies that take race into account tend to presume that, in our post-Civil Rights era, the U.S. is a pure meritocracy that rewards the best and brightest. But this isn’t quite true. Affirmative action is used to offset other arbitrary identifiers that admissions committees are allowed to consider, many of which further enshrine existing social hierarchies according to race and class. Here are just four criteria admissions committees are allowed to consider that reward already privileged students.

1. Legacy Admissions

Six years ago, I had a conversation with a Canadian professor who had earned his PhD at an Ivy League American university. He told me he could never understand the U.S. tolerance for legacy admissions (in which a student with a family member who attended a given university would be privileged in that school’s admissions process) and suggested that legacy admissions “amounts to affirmative action for the rich.” Another Canadian professor who had earned her PhD at an elite American university overheard our conversation and chimed in. She recalled teaching numerous legacy students whose academic performances she found substandard at best.

Former President George W. Bush’s mediocre academic record at Yale is one of the more famous examples of this phenomenon, one that is a particularly big problem at Ivy League schools and other elite institutions. In their 2011 book, Higher Education, How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We Can Do about It, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus note that each legacy applicant to Brown University has the word “legacy” written in the top corner of his or her file. It isn’t clear precisely what effect this has on an applicant’s chances; the Brown Alumni Association, whose Web site instructs viewers to contact it “for a discussion of Brown legacy statistics,” tells AlterNet that Brown does not publish information about legacy admissions. But we know that legacy status matters overall.

To wit: according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a 2011 Harvard study showed that, “all other things being equal, legacy applications got a 23.3-percentage-point increase in their probability of admission” to 30 elite universities. And students with at least one parent who attended the competitive institutions as undergraduates – called “primary legacies” – had a staggering 45.1-percentage-point admissions advantage. In other words, a non-legacy applicant with, say, a 10 percent change of admission would have a 33.3 percent chance of admission as a legacy student and a 55.1 percent chance of being admitted as a primary legacy.

Why do schools do this? Admissions departments are reluctant to discuss the practice, but as economist Peter Sacks told the New York Times, “Elite institutions have an implicit bargain with their alumni…You give us money, and we will move your kids to the front of the line.”

The inequalities perpetuated by legacy admissions are shocking on their own, but all the more so when you take into account how little consideration is given to poor students, in light of the academic and other difficulties they may have faced. In his book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Shamus Rahman Khan writes that while the legacy children of elites receive special consideration, “poorer students are afforded no such luxury.” He explains, “Though poor students experience a host of disadvantages – from lower-quality schools to difficult access to out-of-school enrichment programs to the absence of support when they struggle – colleges are largely blind to such struggles, treating poorer students as if they were the same as rich ones.” Except, that is, when those wealthier students happen to be legacies.