“You know you got in because you’re poor, right?”
At the time, I brushed off my high school friend’s comment on my Yale acceptance as nothing more than jealousy. I bet that many of you have experienced the same refrain — “You know you got in because you’re a legacy/athlete/POC/professor’s kid.” But now, in the wake of Harvard University’s court trial over its potentially discriminatory admission standards, my friend’s words ring loud and true.
Yes, Yale admitted me largely because of my socioeconomic status and because I’m from Oklahoma, “sparse country” in Harvard’s terms.
But I’m not –– and none of you should be –– hurt by the thought that we were all admitted because of our “tips” or “distinguishing excellences,” words that Harvard uses to describe how over ten thousand well-qualified candidates are reduced to a couple thousand. Instead, it’s worth reflecting on how the radical unfairness of admissions is what actually ensures that each university can fulfill its mission.
Let’s start with athletes: Why do academically qualified recruits have an almost 80 percent chance of admittance? It’s probably because they are dependable students. Having the drive to succeed on the field and in the classroom is a compelling combination. One of my first-year suitemates, a football player who juggled five classes, woke up for practice every day at the crack of dawn and still managed to have intriguing conversations with me in our common room at night, dispelled any ill-conceived notions of the “dumb jock” I might have had before.
What about legacies? With a parent who attended Yale or Harvard, legacies are likely to be some of the most qualified applicants. Just as I was not admitted for my “poor” status alone — I still needed perfect grades, test scores, the like — the few legacies on campus aren’t George W. Bush ’68. They’re stellar applicants who are inevitably a strong bet for admissions.
And for those who are children of mega-donors, their numbers are miniscule. If their acceptances allow for more marginal dollars that support better financial aid packages for more low-income students, so be it. It’s better for the University to discriminate in favor of a few individuals who may not meet the highest academic standards if it means supporting more students who do, but can’t afford tuition. I hope Stephen Schwarzman IV will enjoy his tea with President Peter Salovey.
But it’s racial and socioeconomic discrimination that forms the heart of the Harvard controversy. Those against affirmative action generally argue that a fair process would prefer transparent and objective admittance standards (GPAs and test scores) to subjective ones (personality ratings and essays). Organizations like Students for Fair Admissions, the conservative action group suing Harvard, then argue that socioeconomic status, not race, should be the only factor used to give preferential treatment to applicants.
Besides the obvious rebuttal — that the vast quantity of “objectively” qualified students makes “fair admissions” a complete misnomer — the University of California system epitomizes what would result from a change in affirmative action policy. Currently, almost 40 percent of each UC school is Asian. Numbers of African American and Hispanic students, meanwhile, have dropped far below the populations of each group in the state ever since 1995, the year race-conscious university admissions were banned in California.
But Harvard has revealed that of 200 factors considered when deciding between applicants of approximate academic strength, 10 percent concern socioeconomic status. Only 1 percent concerns race. And Yale already addresses socioeconomic disadvantage through QuestBridge and other organizations that seek high performing, low-income students across the country. Both schools have changed their promotion strategies to specifically target schools that are less likely to know about elite colleges. Every winter break, I serve as a Yale ambassador back home — often to underrepresented public schools. Students’ eyes grow round as saucers when I tell them about opportunities at Yale that they had never before known were possible.
Students for Fair Admissions argues that Asians, while comprising the majority of Harvard and Yale’s application pool, are discriminated against for not receiving more spots in the final count. But it shouldn’t be the job of schools to reflect proportionate numbers of the different applicant groups in their admissions pools; instead, as both schools are already doing, they should encourage underrepresented groups to add their applications to the mix, making it more reflective of the population writ large.
As Yalies head to Cambridge, Massachusetts for “The Game” and cheer beside their legacy/poor/recruited/ POC/professor-kid peers, it’s worth thinking that we should all be aware how unfair “the game” of admissions truly is. Since it’s impossible for elite universities to be “fair” in admissions, they should then prefer an “unfair” method that ensures a student body most reflective of the country’s makeup in the most unique, but academically strong and financially stable manner. But in all fairness, Huck Farvard.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .