The dirty little secret of preferential treatment in US higher education

Affirmative action in public higher education in the US is a lightning rod for criticism, repeatedly targeted for legal challenges. The issue is whether colleges can consider a person’s race and ethnicity as a factor in granting admission and to what extent it can be done. In the US, of all places, this should not be such a major issue. Unlike in those countries where it is only scores on some kind of national exam that are considered (as was the case when I took my university entrance exams in Sri Lanka back in medieval times), here the goal of colleges, especially elite ones that have considerable choice over whom to admit, is to shape a student body that meets the goals of the institution and for many colleges that involves having students with diverse backgrounds. At my institution, there were many discussions about how to attract more potential arts and humanities majors, more women into engineering, and so on so as to create a more lively and varied intellectual climate.

US colleges have long had the freedom to consider other factors and they routinely do, taking into account geography, extra-curricular activities, essays, and interests, in addition to scores of standardized tests. Indeed, some schools have abandoned standardized tests altogether seeing them as not that helpful in identifying student academic abilities and predicting success. So why should they not consider race and ethnicity as well? Of course race is not only a touchy issue, it is also a protected category that automatically triggers strict scrutiny whenever any discrimination is done on that basis.

But the real dirty secret of college admissions that should get a lot more scrutiny than it does is the advantage that the children of very wealthy parents get. Daniel Golden wrote a book The Price of Admission a decade ago about how these wealthy people buy admission to elite schools for their children. One of the examples in his book was that of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump, who got into Harvard despite mediocre credentials. Thanks to Donald Trump’s victory in the election, Golden’s book is enjoying a resurgence and he writes about the Kushner case again.

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

What irks me about those people who complain that under-represented minorities get preferential treatment in college admission is that they focus solely on unequal treatment at the point of admission and ignore everything else. What I would like to ask them is whether they would trade their entire life history with that of a black student just in order to get what they see as an unfair edge in admissions. Of course they wouldn’t. Being born black in America means having to fight stigma and discrimination every step of the way, even if you belong to an affluent family, and anyone who does not concede that is oblivious to reality. They tend to ignore the fact that wealthy people not only get all these advantages all their lives, they then get them even more at college admission time.

Asian families tend, for a multiplicity of reasons, to be over-represented in higher education and so it is harder for them to gain admission to elite institutions than even white students. When our children were applying to colleges, we knew that it would be tougher for them. But it would have been madness for us to not realize that they had had tremendous advantages all their lives that gave them a huge educational edge up the point of college admissions. To ignore all that and demand equal treatment on the basis of ‘fairness’ would have been an abuse of that term.


  1. anat says

    I read once that originally the Ivy League schools did use entrance exams as their main (or sole) criterion. Then when children of non-WASP immigrants started passing the exams the schools started a more ‘holistic’ application process, meant to exclude those that did not fit with the (very class oriented) culture those schools tried to maintain -- so they could reject non-WASP students who excelled academically but didn’t do enough of the correct sports and so on. Only much later did the holistic process become a tool for increasing diversity rather than limiting it.

  2. Some Old Programmer says

    This was also evident in George W.’s receipt of “gentleman’s Cs”. If you’re a scion, no need to sweat the coursework once you’re in--you’ll come out with a degree after the appropriate amount of donations…er, make that time,… has passed.

  3. Varun Kharwadkar says

    Fair point about ‘history up to the point of admission’, I guess. It certainly occurred to me that the fuss over Kushner seemed overblown when many other students are allowed in even though manifestly not very capable, purely because of skin color or gender or ethnicity. But you’ve shown the other side. However, I still think the people who are entitled to be upset are the hard working kids who do not benefit from family wealth, and do not belong to today’s ‘minority of choice’, and who are bypassed. They are not privileged, just excluded unfairly.

  4. Mano Singham says


    The idea that some students “are allowed in even though manifestly not very capable, purely because of skin color or gender or ethnicity” is not quite correct. It is not worth it for a college to admit students who are not capable because students who struggle mightily are a big drain on university resources and drop out rates adversely affect a university’s ratings.

    In all the discussions that I have been involved in, the students were assumed to be good enough to be able to do the work but they would not have been admitted if test scores had been the only criterion for admission.

    I agree that poor children, from any group, that have been able to succeed against all odds, should be given special consideration too. The ability to persevere when things are going against you is a good marker of future success.

  5. Amal Siriwardena says


    I am curious to know what the current legal position is regarding race and gender based affirmative action. The last I know of is the case University of California vs. Alan Bakke where it was ruled that race -based quotas are unacceptable but race based affirmative action in other ways could be constitutional.This I think was a ruling driven by the political balance of the court at the time- only one judge took this position -- rather than any consensus opinion about affirmative action. The distinction seems to me to be rather vague. What is the position regarding gender ?

    This said, the reasons for affirmative actions could be varied and not always ‘progressive’.. I believe sometime back there were suggestions that affirmative action should be applied to white Americans in the IT field due to the field becoming dominated by Asians.

  6. Mano Singham says


    There are two issues involved here.

    There is the 14th Amendment to the US constitution’s demands of equal treatment under the laws by the government. These provisions only apply to actions by the government or entities recognized as being agents of the government. So when it comes to college admissions, this applies to only public universities so private ones can discriminate. The courts have ruled that there should be ‘strict scrutiny’ when it comes to using race, religion, and national origin (see my earlier post here on what that means) while when it comes to gender or sexual orientation, the required standard has not been made explicit. These constitutional provisions would not apply to the IT industry since it is private.

    But the federal government has also passed a set of laws that forbid discrimination in the work place and these apply to most private institutions. These laws are complex and need to be adjudicated on a case by case basis but generally discrimination is not allowed if it is pervasive and does not serve some legitimate purpose necessary of the functioning on the institution.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    I wouldn’t mind the practice of allowing rich folks to buy admission for their kids if it was institutionalized in some way: for instance, “If you want to buy a place in Harvard for your mediocre kid, you will need to donate X into a fund that will pay the tuition for this many smart underpriveleged kids.” And make sure Harvard actually spends the money on scholarships, not just buying a new building.

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