Harvard Admissions Data Shows That America Loves Affirmative Action—for Whites

Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Getty
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Getty

America’s elite colleges and universities really don’t want the public to take a peek behind the curtain and get a better understanding of who gets admitted and why. And it’s not for the reasons you might think.

The urban legend endures that any Latino or African American who applies to one of these ultra-selective schools can write their own ticket. But the truth is, the people who get the lion’s share of those tickets, who issue the tickets, and who, in fact, run the ticket booth are white.

The real pigs at the trough are white people who have connections, make donations, or otherwise encourage wealthy alumni boosters to send more checks. T’was always thus.

Dirty Secrets of College Admissions

A new study proves what the relatively few students of color who will ever have the chance to attend selective colleges and universities have long suspected: Despite what people call “imposter syndrome”—i.e., the insecurity that some Latinos and African Americans feel about whether they deserve the opportunities they’ve been afforded—they aren’t imposters at all. Far from it. Rather, they’re among the most deserving of admission.

The numbers show that, for the most part, students of color had to work harder in high school to get into these elite schools than white ones with hook-ups, deep pockets or alumni pedigrees.

Moreover, in many cases, this pattern will continue throughout their entire professional lives. Merit only gets you so far.

Just look at the experience of what might be called whites without privilege. Working-class whites who don’t have a foot in the door are being kept out of top schools not by Latinos and African Americans but by ruling class whites who are working an angle.

All this comes to light thanks to a lawsuit accusing Harvard of practicing discrimination in its undergraduate admissions process. In 2014, an organization calling itself Students for Fair Admissions and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Harvard College in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, claiming that the school discriminates against Asian American applicants by holding them to a higher standard than other applicants.

That’s been a hard case to make given that the college’s student body is now about 25 percent Asian. Both the District Court and the First Circuit of Appeals have rejected the claim, and now the plaintiffs want the Supreme Court to hear their appeal of the lower court’s rulings.

But the lawsuit itself isn’t what matters here. It’s the public documents that the lawsuit brought to light.

Researchers from Duke University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Oklahoma dove into those documents and analyzed something that looms large in the admissions process of elite schools yet is rarely talked about: admissions preferences for recruited athletes, legacies, those on the “dean’s interest list” (read: donors), and children of faculty and staff—a group collectively referred to by the unwieldy acronym of ALDC).

Using data from the Harvard lawsuit on 166,727 U.S. applicants to Harvard between 2009-2014, the professors did a good job of breaking down who has been getting in and why they’ve been getting in.

According to their findings, more than 43 percent of the white students admitted were ALDC. But the share for African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos was less than 16 percent. Furthermore, the research shows, roughly three-quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if not for their ALDC status. Finally, eliminating preferences for athletes and legacies would make the pool of admitted students much less white.

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As a Mexican American who went to Harvard, I hear only one thing in these findings: vindication.

You see, Latino and African American students who go to Harvard, or other highly selective college and universities, tend to arrive on campus with a ringing in their ears. It’s the sound they heard in high school of jealous white classmates sniping that if they hadn’t been people of color, they wouldn’t have gotten in.

I know that sound. Intimately. I told this story in a book I wrote nearly 30 years ago about my experience as a Mexican American undergraduate at America’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning.

That petty and small-minded attack is based in ignorance, and a complete misunderstanding of something called affirmative action, a concept which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary.

It was on March 6, 1961, that President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which included a provision that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The reasoning was that society couldn’t just ignore the destructive and debilitating effects of a few centuries worth of discrimination, mistreatment, injustice—and in the case of Black Americans, outright enslavement—by putting people on the starting line of a race and yelling: “Ready, set, go!”

That’s absurd. It isn’t enough to simply bar discrimination. America needs to encourage the expanding of opportunity to groups that had previously been denied it by making positive efforts — that is, taking “affirmative action” — to live out and make real what Harvard boasted in its recruitment material was its “commitment to diversity.”

Yeah, whatever. When I walked through Johnston Gate and into Harvard Yard in the fall of 1985, I was one of just 35 Mexican Americans in a class of about 1,600 undergraduates. That’s only about 2 percent. Add in Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Colombians and others, and the total number of Latinos might have reached 5 percent.

Most of us were straight-A valedictorians, student body presidents, self-starters who had rocketed through high school kicking ass and taking names.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of Harvard’s student body was at that point still white.

Which reminds me of the second sound that people of color often hear in our heads as we make our way through the college experience. As we associate with our white classmates, it sometimes occurs to us that some of these people aren’t all that. A lot of them don’t seem that smart. They don’t spend a lot of time in the library, and yet they walk around campus with an impenetrable air of confidence. Indeed, some appear to have simply skated through life with help from their parents, from society, and ultimately from the admissions office.

Now thanks to a very important study, my friends and I know that we weren’t imagining things. There were, in fact, some imposters on campus. And now we know who they were.

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