Affirmative Action for Rich, White Kids?
Peter Schmidt, deputy editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action, argues in a recent Boston Globe op-ed that more whites than minorities who don’t make the grade are admitted to elite schools.
Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America’s highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admissions standards.
Five years ago, two researchers working for the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, took the academic profiles of students admitted into 146 colleges in the top two tiers of Barron’s college guide and matched them up against the institutions’ advertised requirements in terms of high school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and records of involvement in extracurricular activities. White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.
Who are these mediocre white students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.
A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list.
Applicants who stood no chance of gaining admission without connections are only the most blatant beneficiaries of such admissions preferences. Except perhaps at the very summit of the applicant pile – that lofty place occupied by young people too brilliant for anyone in their right mind to turn down – colleges routinely favor those who have connections over those who don’t. While some applicants gain admission by legitimately beating out their peers, many others get into exclusive colleges the same way people get into trendy night clubs, by knowing the management or flashing cash at the person manning the velvet rope.
Of course, the numbers are a little skewed for the sake of being provocative. By definition, minority set-asides apply to a relatively small number of people. If the “numerical target” (remember, quotas were ruled unconstitutional thirty years ago) is 12 percent and 7 percent are found using the normal process, the delta necessary to make up by putting one’s thumb on the scale is just 5 percent. Conversely, the vast majority of wealthy alumni from these institutions — or just people wealthy enough to make it worth Harvard’s while — are going to be white. It’s also true that racial discrimination is specifically prohibited by the 14th Amendment and a whole host of legislation whereas giving special privileges to the rich and famous is as American as apple pie.
Still, one would think skewing the admissions process to give the benefit of the doubt to those from less privileged backgrounds (as Justice Thomas put it last night, those “running the race uphill”) would be more desirable than rewarding those who have every advantage life has to offer. (Race and ethnicity are poor proxies for “underprivileged” and even “diverse,” but that’s at least the theory behind affirmative action.) Yet there’s little discussion of the phenomenon, let alone the animus reserved for race-based preferences.
The interesting side issue Schmidt touches upon — rather amusing in that, defying stereotype, white kids are the beneficiaries here — is that of lowering standards for intercollegiate athletes. On its face, this seems to go against not only the spirit of an institution of higher learning but of intercollegiate athletics. Moreover, given that athletes have much higher demands on them than traditional students (i.e., those going to school full time with either loans or someone else footing the bill, not burdened with child care, and so forth) the “advantage” in this case is most likely to wind up as simple exploitation, with the students unable to actually benefit from earning a degree at the institution in question.
Interestingly, Dartmouth College econ prof Andrew Samwick sees “a kernel of truth” in the story but asserts that it’s not “entirely accurate.” He doesn’t elaborate.