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.