How college admissions advantages for white kids pile up

In oral arguments, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson drew a powerful contrast between two ways a person’s family history might—or might not—benefit them directly in college admissions. She offered a hypothetical about the University of North Carolina, which is, along with Harvard, having its admissions policies challenged: One applicant writes an essay detailing how their family has been in North Carolina since before the Civil War, and they would be the fifth generation of their family to attend UNC. The other’s family has also been in North Carolina since before the Civil War—but they were enslaved, and subsequently barred from admission to UNC by segregation.

As I understand your no-race-conscious-admissions rule, these two applicants would have a dramatically different opportunity to tell their family stories and to have them count,” Jackson said, in an exchange with an anti-affirmative action lawyer. Under the policy conservatives are pushing, the first applicant’s family history could weigh in their favor for admission, while “the second one wouldn’t be able to [get credit for those qualifications] because his story is in many ways bound up with his race and the race of his ancestors.”

Literally the fact that one family had been given generations of advantages would now confer continuing advantage, while the fact that the other family had been discriminated against for generations could not be weighed. 

That the first student with a family legacy at a school would get an advantage is far from hypothetical. A 2019 study found that 43% of white students admitted to Harvard came from four groups: recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff, and children or relatives of donors (not $25 donors—Kushner-level donors). And around 75% of the white students in those categories (called ALDCs for “athletes, legacies, development cases, and/or children of faculty/staff”) “would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs.” That’s a big group of white people who would have been rejected if they hadn’t been given special advantages. By contrast, around 16% of Black, Latino, and Asian students admitted to Harvard are ALDCs. Because of the history Jackson referred to from the bench, almost 70% of Harvard’s legacy applicants are white. The history of racism leads to a present in which a significant number of white people get a concrete advantage in college admissions that is not labeled as a racial advantage.

And while many people hold the stereotype of someone whose athletic prowess gets them into college as a Black football or basketball player, that’s not the case. Think lacrosse, crew, ice hockey, sailing, water polo, skiing. These are very white sports, as a glance at Harvard’s rosters clearly shows, there are a lot of these very white sports at the university, and it is very much an admissions advantage. Decades ago, as a teacher for one of the big test prep chains, I had a student who was going to an Ivy League school to play ice hockey—if I could help him get his SAT score up to a minimum allowable level, one that would have put him in the bottom 25% of his class. 

For all that stereotypes again suggest that Black kids might (or should) feel self-conscious that they didn’t fully earn their admission, the smart legacies and athletes realize how they benefitted. I went to graduate school at Princeton University, at one point working part-time as a writing tutor. At my first meeting with one (white) student, she slouched in with a hoodie drawn tightly around her face, threw herself into a chair, and said, “I’m stupid.” 

“I’m sure you’re not stupid,” I replied.

“I’m a legacy and an athlete. I’m stupid.”

The student self-aware enough to say that probably isn’t stupid—she was, in fact, working on an extremely interesting history research paper and was an adequate writer on top of her thoughtful subject matter. But it’s a guarantee that there are plenty of legacies and privileged athletes wandering the campuses of Harvard and similarly prestigious schools, absolutely certain that they got there solely through individual merit. If the right-wing opponents of affirmative action starting groups like “Students for Fair Admissions” and bringing these lawsuits really cared about fair admissions, they’d be looking at legacies and children of donors and children of faculty and staff (disclosure: I attended the university where one of my parents taught) and, yes, athletes, because while there’s an argument that athletes had to earn their way in through achievement, the opportunities to do so are unbalanced in a world in which a host of expensive, relatively esoteric, and very white sports like fencing and sailing and skiing and crew confer the advantages popularly thought to apply only to Black students playing high-profile sports like football and basketball.

Of course, none of this is likely to matter to the court’s Republican justices, most definitely including Clarence Thomas, himself a resentful recipient of affirmative action. When Republicans see a chance to reimpose racist policies and continue the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, they, generally speaking, do it.

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The 2022 midterms are just around the corner, and you sent us a ton of fantastic questions for this week’s episode of The Downballot. Among the many topics we cover: which states are likely to report results slowly—and how will those results change over time; the House districts that look like key bellwethers for how the night might go, and which might offer surprises; why and how Democrats make the hard decisions on which races to triage; the top legislative chambers to keep an eye on; and plenty more!




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