'Affirmative action for the rich:' Wealthy parents use their privilege to game the college system. And it's perfectly legal

Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO — "There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy," Andrew Lelling, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, said at Tuesday's press conference announcing charges against dozens of parents for paying bribes to get their children into some of the nation's elite universities.

Some would argue there already is.  

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe college admissions should be based on merit, weighted toward students with the best grades and the highest test scores. But wealthy and influential parents routinely use their privilege to game the college admissions process. And it's all perfectly legal.

A famous example involves Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, whose acceptance letter from Harvard University arrived not long after his father, who at the time was a wealthy developer, pledged $2.5 million to Harvard. Harvard also maintains a "Dean's Interest List" for applicants related to or with ties to top donors.

Even more pervasive is a practice called legacy admissions, which greases the wheels for children of wealthy alumni and tends to favor affluent white students. Forty-two percent of private institutions and six percent of public institutions consider legacy status as a factor in admissions, according to a 2018 survey of admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed. Harvard says legacy students make up around 14 percent of its undergraduate population.

Actress Felicity Huffman is seen inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles, on March 12.

How much of an edge does legacy give students? A Princeton University study found that being a legacy applicant was the equivalent of adding 160 SAT points to a student's application. The acceptance rate for legacy applicants is two to three times higher the normal admissions rate.

At elite colleges, athletic recruiting is another preference largely conferred on well-to-do students engaged in such sports as lacrosse, crew, sailing and water polo, says Daniel Golden, author of "The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates."

Then there are the cumulative benefits of a lifetime of one-percenter advantages — private schools and pricey tutors, music and sports lessons, standardized test prep courses and coaches, fancy extracurriculars — that make high school transcripts and college essays stand out. 

Estimates vary, but Golden says at least half of the available spots at the nation's elite universities are taken by students benefiting from some kind of preference. Most of those preferences, which he calls "preferences of privilege," tilt white and wealthy, putting college-bound students with fewer resources at a sharp disadvantage.

A poster containing a photo of William "Rick" Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, is displayed during a news conference Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Boston, where indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal were announced.

Attending one of the nation's elite colleges is widely seen as the most promising path to upper class life. Though these institutions are enrolling more low-income students, students of color and first-generation students, access is still not distributed equally. 

About one in four of the wealthiest students attend a top-ranked college while less than 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend one, according to a 2017 study from the Equality of Opportunity Project. 

Students at the nation's top colleges don't just get world-class instruction. They gain access to a rarefied social network, swinging open doors that are closed to most. 

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"I hope this will lead to a conversation about socioeconomic diversity at colleges," says Alexandria Walton Radford, co-author of "No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life" and director of the Center for Postsecondary Transformation Research & Policy at American Institutes for Research (AIR). "These students have a ton of advantages from day one. I encourage colleges to think about what they can do to ensure that students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are being given the consideration they deserve."

The FBI investigation, named Operation Varsity Blues, which ensnared actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, uncovered an extreme but logical extension of a long history of preferences, says Golden, a ProPublica senior editor whose 2006 book chronicled how the affluent pull strings to secure spots in top colleges. When he published it, he says wealthy parents treated it as a "how to" guide.  

Parents allegedly paid $200,000 to $6.5 million to William Rick Singer, who ran a college prep business in Newport Beach, California, to fabricate athletic profiles for their children that boasted fake credentials, honors and participation in elite club teams. Singer then bribed standardized test administrators and college coaches. 

“There is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in,” Singer said in his testimony. "I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in."

"If you are a kid who doesn't have any of these preferences, your chance of admission goes down drastically," Golden says.

For years, the nation has debated whether race and ethnicity should be among the many factors considered in college admission. But far less attention has been paid to a more prevalent form of affirmative action, says Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York City, and editor of "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in Higher Education."

"We are all about social mobility and we are not aristocratic and yet we have this system that advantages the already advantaged and does so openly," Kahlenberg says. "As we become a more diverse and hopefully more democratic nation, it just becomes harder and harder to defend these anachronistic practices that are deeply unAmerican." 

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Harvard is being sued by a group of Asian-American applicants who say they were shut out by this informal system of preferences, including affirmative action. A ruling on whether on whether Harvard's policies are discriminatory is expected by June.

In the 1980s, Asian-American groups also challenged Harvard's legacy preferences. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights in 1990 found that these preferences were legal even if they favor white applicants over others.

Natasha Warikoo, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of “The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities," says legacy admissions and other university polices known to increase inequality are getting a pass while affirmative action does not. Colleges often link legacy admissions to other policy preferences such as those that favor immigrants or minorities.

"I sometimes think universities defending these things that create more inequality makes it harder for them to defend the policy that reduces inequality, which is affirmative action," Warikoo says.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Affirmative action for the rich:' Wealthy parents use their privilege to game the college system. And it's perfectly legal