Is affirmative action in college admissions legal? Does it unfairly deprive deserving white applicants of being accepted at schools like Harvard or Yale?
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases that will decide those related questions in 2023. The notoriously conservative court could overturn more than 40 years of precedents that allowed colleges to consider race as one of the myriad factors that bear on their admissions decisions.
If you are white and an aspiring college applicant, as I was 55 years ago, I’m here to testify that you have way more to worry about than the skin color of your peers.
Let’s start with dumb jocks — oops, I mean less academically accomplished athletes. Full disclosure, I was one. This almost certainly helped me get into Yale.
My alma mater has more than 30 varsity teams (I played on two of them); Harvard has more than 40. Athletes are needed not only to fill out the rosters, but also to make the alumni proud, and generous. If you are an accomplished football player with passable grades, your chances of admission to Yale or Harvard are far greater than those of less coordinated candidates of similar — or superior — academic prowess.
Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, but they do recruit athletes and have millions in financial aid money to play with.
For the class of 2026, Harvard accepted a mere 3.2 percent of all applicants. But recruited athletes fare far better. A 2019 article in The Atlantic pegged the acceptance rate for recruited athletes applying to Harvard at a whopping 90 percent. That translates into 10 percent of the incoming scholars. Another estimated 10 percent of Harvard freshmen and women consist of athletic walk-ons, students who may not have been actively recruited, but who can boast an athletic component on their high school resumes. I fell into this category back in the day. I was a three-sport jock in high school.
OK, you’re not a jock: strike one.
How about being a legacy? Did Mommy or Daddy matriculate in Cambridge or New Haven? (Full disclosure: my father went to Yale.) The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reports that between 2014 and 2019 the acceptance rate for legacy applicants was 33 percent, 10 times that of the less well connected.
All right, let’s try these loopholes: Do either of your parents teach at Harvard or did they donate a sizable chunk of money? The Crimson reports that nearly half (47 percent) of faculty children who apply get in. Offspring of those on the prestigious “Director’s List,” scions of large contributors or influential families, are accepted 42 percent of the time, according to The Crimson. As an example, Jared Kushner got in shortly after his father donated $2.5 million to Harvard.
None of the above is fair, but Harvard has its institutional reasons even if you and I may not agree with them. Besides, my guess is that the Supreme Court won’t be sticking its nose into any of the evident biases detailed above anytime soon. It is only worried that Black applicants may be benefiting from affirmative action.
African-Americans make up 15 percent of the Harvard class of 2026; that’s the same percentage as legacy students. Black Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. To its credit, Harvard looks like America in this regard.
Yale decidedly did not when I attended, circa 1967. The campus was awash in students who looked like me, 42 percent of whom hailed from expensive private schools like Andover or Hotchkiss. I attended Hotchkiss.
I freely admit it: Yours truly was a 1960s affirmative action baby — before the term was in common usage. The fix was in for mediocre students like me.
Back then, college admissions policy was skewed for the benefit of the all-set set. Today affirmative action still does that: For example, on behalf of athletes, the vast majority of whom are white.
There are those in high and low places who would like to return to the good old days of yesteryear, when institutions like Harvard and Yale didn’t look like America, but rather resembled the often restrictive country clubs of that era.
David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam.