The people who benefit most from Harvard’s admissions policies

A federal judge ruled this week that the admissions policy of Harvard University is constitutional.

In a closely watched lawsuit that had raised fears about the future of affirmative action, a group called Students for Fair Admissions accused the Ivy League college of deliberately — and illegally — holding down the number of Asian Americans accepted in order to preserve a certain racial balance on campus.

U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs, however, ruled that Harvard’s admissions process is “not perfect” but passes constitutional muster. She said there is “no evidence of any racial animus whatsoever” and no evidence that any admission decision was “negatively affected by Asian American identity.”

“Race conscious admissions will always penalize to some extent the groups that are not being advantaged by the process,” Burroughs wrote, “but this is justified by the compelling interest in diversity and all the benefits that flow from a diverse college population.”

While the basis of the lawsuit was that Asian-American students were being discriminated against, the backers of this suit is a right-wing group whose goal is to get rid of affirmative action altogether.

In the case at Harvard, the plaintiffs argued that Asian Americans were held to a higher standard in admissions, amounting to an “Asian penalty,” while the school gave preference to black and Hispanic students with poorer grades.

Harvard has called Students for Fair Admission a political group with no real interest in helping Asian Americans. Instead, its critics say, the organization’s real goal is to end affirmative action altogether. Blum is a legal strategist who has orchestrated lawsuits to ban it at other colleges.

The group says it has more than 20,000 members, including one Asian American who was unfairly rejected in 2014, but none have come forward publicly. During the trial, no students testified that they faced discrimination by Harvard.

A recent paper looked at who are the people who really benefit from the admissions policies of Harvard and they are the white legacy students and athletes. From the abstract of the paper:

The lawsuit Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard University provided an unprecedented look at how an elite school makes admissions decisions. Using publicly released reports, we examine the preferences Harvard gives for recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs). Among white admits, over 43% are ALDC. Among admits who are African American, Asian American, and Hispanic, the share is less than 16% each. Our model of admissions shows that roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs. Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged. [My italics-Mano]

As Kevin Drum says:

It turns out that more than 40 percent of Harvard’s incoming white students from the classes of 2014-19 benefited from their ALDC status compared to about 15 percent for other ethnic groups. As a result, 1,612 otherwise unqualified whites were admitted, triple the number of every other group combined.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone complain about affirmative action for black or Hispanic students crowding out better qualified white students. Whatever sort of affirmative action Harvard may have for marginalized groups, the raw numbers come nowhere even close to the preferences they already give to white applicants.


  1. jrkrideau says

    So, the best bet is that any Caucasian Harvard student is basically someone who would not have gotten in under normal competition? Well so much for a Harvard degree anymore. Of course ever since I’ve learned that there was such a thing as Legacy students the US I have been do views of some of those Ivy League degrees.

  2. rgmani says

    The problem with this lawsuit is that right wing group is using it as a way of destroying affirmative action. The way I see it, Harvard is trying to limit the number of Asians it admits and this policy hearkens back to the time when they tried to limit Jewish applicants. The only difference between the two cases is that this time around, they are going about it in a much more subtle way. The beneficiaries in both cases are white students and not blacks or hispanics.

    Even though I tend to agree that Harvard is trying to limit Asian enrollment, I wanted this lawsuit to fail and I am pretty glad it did. I’d rather not give the right wing any more victories in its war against affirmative action. Unfortunately, I think this victory is going to be short-lived. In the last lawsuit brought by Edward Blum (the Abigail Fisher vs University of Texas case), affirmative action barely won at the Supreme Court. The deciding vote in that case was cast by Anthony Kennedy who is now no longer on the court and has been replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. What’s more, that was a far weaker case than this one and Kavanaugh is far less likely to be pro affirmative action than his predecessor.

    -- RM

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