Affirmative Action for White Kids?

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Democracy's Constitution / Repairing The Systen / The Supremes

A recent lawsuit against Harvard College alleges that its admissions procedures covertly discriminate against Asian-American candidates.  This lawsuit has national importance because the admission procedures at Harvard are very much like those used at other elite schools.

Discovery in  the case has revealed that there is more than one path to admission to Harvard College. There is the official  procedure that looks at a whole raft of factors (including race) in  judging candidates in hope of obtaining a class made up of  excellent students, many from minority backgrounds.

But  another less publicized path gives special weight to whether the applicant is a relative of an alumnus—these applicants are called “legacy” candidates. A third road to acceptance  considers the applications of the sons and daughters of large donors to the college. One of these “donor” candidates was Jared Kushner, now famous as the son-in-law of President Trump. In deciding to admit Jared Harvard took into account  the fact that  his father had recently made a  2.5 million dollar gift to the college  And a fourth program is devoted to the admission of “recruited athletes” who are not  required to have the same academic qualifications as regular admits.

The shocking  news  is that almost one-third of the students admitted come from the  legacy, donor, or athlete tracks.  And since the beneficiaries of these programs are mostly white, these programs in fact operate as “anti-affirmative action” programs since they usurp  spots that might otherwise have been awarded to minority students under the normal admissions process. (If you are surprised to find that most of the athletes are white, remember that  Harvard sponsors a large array of intercollegiate sports, including  golf, ice hockey, rugby,  and sailing.)

The current litigation is limited to the narrow issue of whether Harvard’s  official   procedures discriminate against Asian-Americans.  It brings up  the truly difficult   issue of  whether and how Harvard should  consider  “race” as a factor in its admission procedure.

The plaintiffs argue that the use of  “race” inevitably invites bias when applied to individual cases.  For instance, plaintiffs have  shown that Asian-Americans have routinely been rated lower than whites on various “personal” factors.  They suggest omitting “race” completely and relying instead on hard socioeconomic data that would admit more students from less wealthy families.  They argue that this procedure actually  would yield more minority admissions than the present program.

Harvard  rejects these arguments arguing that there is no discrimination against Asian Americans, and pointing out that,  while the program proposed by plaintiffs might  admit more minorities overall, it would reduce African-American admits  from 16 to 10 percent of its entering class.

I do not mean to ignore the very important and very difficult issue of how, if at all,  schools should  consider race as a factor in admissions  and I  intend to  discuss it  in a future post. But  before facing  such a thorny issue, I think it makes sense that Harvard take some easy steps that would  improve its record on minority admissions  without any use of race.

I suggest that Harvard  eliminate all  admission preferences for alumni and donors.   Everyone senses that  something is very  wrong about  how elite colleges are choosing their students. The latest story about celebrity parents like Felicity Huffman bribing admission officers is the latest scandal, but what she did is not too different from the actions of  large donors like the Kushners, or from those of alumni who make large donations intended to help a relative.

I also suggest that Harvard end its special preferences  for recruited athletes;  let the athletic teams be made up of  students who  were chosen on the same academic standards as  their classmates.

I realize that neither of these suggestions  will be popular with alumni, who naturally like special treatment for their relatives and a football team that can beat Yale.  But elite schools’ today are too dependent on government subsidies to be considered “private” in any meaningful sense. They have to be answerable to the public.

That’s why it’s time  that  Harvard take action to make sure its student body is not chosen by wealth or status.   It  will only add to Harvard’s  prestige if it leads the way forward instead of defending practices that are no longer defensible.




  1. C. Delos Putz says

    A word of caution. Money is what makes institutions “elite”. Money is the mother’s milk of academic excellence. All colleges, public and private alike, need to raise very large amounts of private money in order to continue to do the job they do. Raising money means courting donors. Some mutual back-scratching is part of the deal. The money donated by rich white guys is what makes it possible for elite schools to take significant numbers of minority students without money. A limited number of legacy and donor admits seem to me to be a relatively small price to pay for getting the donations that ultimately pay for minority programs. Without those donations, there would be far fewer programs to assist minority students.



  2. Thanks, Delos, for reminding me of a very important principle: reforms have to be judged on how they play out in the real world. (I seem to remember you reminding me of this principle in many contexts over the years).

    But the context is all important. It may be true that we might forgive old President Hornswoggle if he “bent the rules” a little to accept the son of a multi-millionaire who signaled his willingness to make a million dollar gift to the Chemistry Department, money needed if the Chemistry labs are going to have test tubes next Fall.

    The world of Harvard College and other elite schools is a very different place. These are very wealthy institutions who receive large numbers of taxpayer subsidized donations from donors who have no higher goal than associating their name with a celebrated institution. I think we can fairly ask that they play by the “no favoritism” rule. What do you think?


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