In the last few days of its court hearing against affirmative action, Harvard University will wrap up its defense with testimonies from current and former students on the value of diversity. Yet if Harvard and its peer colleges truly care about real diversity, then they need to eliminate a set of practices that currently constitute affirmative action for wealthy, white students.
These practices include special preference for legacies, donors’ relatives and recruited athletes. In the past few months, court filings have revealed the stark advantages afforded to Harvard applicants from these three groups, all of whom come from overwhelmingly white, wealthy backgrounds. For example, students on Harvard’s secretive “Director’s List” and “Dean’s Interest List,” usually compiled through connections to the school’s donors, have a combined admission rate of 42.4 percent, collectively constituting over 9 percent of Harvard admits across six years, according to court documents acquired by the Harvard Crimson. Meanwhile, the admit rate for recruited athletes who received an academic ranking of four on a scale of one to six — with one being the highest — saw admit rates 1,000 times that of nonathletes with the same score.
It would be ideal if this trend were unique to Harvard alone. However, variations of this pattern occur at highly selective colleges across the country, confirming a dedication by our institutions to perpetuate the dominance of the American elite rather than pursuing academic excellence and diverse communities. Take, for example, a 2002 analysis of 30 selective colleges by William Bowen and James Schulman, which found that legacies and athletes received a 25 and 48 percent boost in admissions, respectively. As of 2016, Yale was allowed by the Ivy League to dedicate up to 230 seats to athletes in an incoming class (although not all the slots are normally used). Even as Yale boasts that there are now more first-generation than legacy students in recently admitted classes, it’s worth noting that the proportion of legacy students per class has stayed relatively constant since 1992, hovering around 14 percent.
Meanwhile, although the debate around athletic recruitment has surfaced at Yale multiple times, rarely do we talk about its impact upon the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the student body. After all, athletics includes not just the football team, but also historically white, preparatory school sports with high barriers to entry. Last year, none of the registered Ivy League student-athletes in skiing or sailing were black, while only seven out of 206 fencers identified as Hispanic or Latino. In most sports across the Ivy League, white students make up the majority of athletes. In Yale’s class of 2019, over 42 percent of student-athletes came from families who earned over $250,000. Given that participation in sports, let alone elite sports, is no small investment of time and money, it is reasonable to assume that Yale is not increasing its socioeconomic diversity through its athletic recruits.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that athletes — or any other applicants — are inherently any less qualified to be here. I firmly reject arguments that athletes do not contribute to campus, or that they are less intellectually engaged. Let’s set aside for a moment that our use of extracurricular prowess as a proxy for non-academic merit is biased against most first-generation, low-income applicants, many of whom have not had the resources to pursue these activities. Even then, I am puzzled as to why one group of extracurriculars is lauded above the rest, by colleges across the country. Financial arguments seem unsound: at the vast majority of schools, according to the NCAA, athletic expenses outpace any revenue earned from them. As far as school spirit goes, I’d be just as happy to see any team of Yale students succeeding in anything.
So far, Harvard has been the only institution where the details of admissions preferences have been laid completely bare. Yet, it is not difficult to spot blatant inequality, even if the picture is hazy. Before I came to Yale, it was common to hear Chinese immigrant parents speak about certain applicants that they knew their sons and daughters could not compete with. Yong qian da chu lai de, they would say: the applicants built out of money. While this court case has touched largely on race, often in ugly ways, we can use this opportunity to move forwards rather than backwards. Elite institutions can acknowledge the flawed practices we’ve used to favor the upper strata of American society and fix them.
If we truly desire racial diversity, why reserve so many slots for largely white, wealthy students? Why, of all applicants — including students who have overcome unimaginable circumstances — are these the students who ought to receive a boost in the admissions process?
If we desire to create an institution, a community, that truly values excellence in all its forms, from people of all kinds of backgrounds and passions, then we ought to attack the real enemy: structures which blatantly reinforce and reproduce socioeconomic and racial inequality. Let us not misdirect our anger, especially in a fight as important as this one.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .