Rethinking college admissions to serve all segments of society

High school scholars have two paths to Harvard University. They can study hard, demonstrate leadership and earn their way in. Or they can claim birthright privileges and move to the front of the line.

The merit-based approach seems more American but comes with long odds. Elite colleges pride themselves on blocking as many qualified applicants as possible, and ranking systems create perverse incentives that reward exclusivity.

Harvard rejected 19 out of every 20 applicants for the class of 2021, and many who got in leaned on family connections and the ability of their parents to make big donations. A perfect SAT score combined with a varsity letter and participation in orchestra, drama and service clubs might not be enough to overcome the stacked deck — especially for public school graduates with the wrong pedigree.

Ed Boland, former assistant dean of admissions at Yale, explains why in a 2016 New York Post column. “Once the children of alumni, recruited athletes, underrepresented minorities or regions, and students interested in underenrolled majors were considered, there wasn’t much room for your generic genius,” he writes.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner didn’t need genius to get past the Ivy League in 1998. His dad pledged $2.5 million to Harvard shortly before he applied. Other applicants benefit from “legacy” or underrepresented minority status, which cannot be earned through hard work.

Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative-leaning nonprofit based in Virginia, is suing Harvard, the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas at Austin, asserting that affirmative action policies at those institutions create disadvantages for white applicants in particular. The Trump administration, motivated by this lawsuit, drew attention to a similar case on Aug. 2, announcing plans to redirect Justice Department resources to a 2015 complaint filed on behalf of 64 Asian American groups.

Ample evidence supports the Asian American grievance. A 2009 Princeton study found that Asian Americans must score 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics or Latinos, and 450 points higher than African Americans on the 1,600-point SAT college entrance exam to have the same chance of admission at leading universities.

Harvard’s Class of 2021 is 22 percent Asian. But at California Institute of Technology, which bases admission strictly on merit, Asian enrollment grew from 25 percent in 1992 to 42 percent in 2017. At Berkeley it is around 33 percent.

Harvard and other leading colleges explain these discrepancies using noble-sounding arguments. They use a holistic admission policy that weights leadership qualities along with academic merit. They also cite the need for diverse classes made up of different races, ethnicities, genders and nationalities. Finally, they claim commitment to the mission of helping the underprivileged elevate themselves in society.

Actual enrollment figures belie these claims. Nearly half of the students at Harvard and Stanford, for example, come from families making more than $200,000 a year, placing them in the top 4 percent of U.S. households. And more than 50 percent of students at most elite colleges come from private high schools.

As a former dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, I experienced enormous pressure to admit children of alumni, especially when the parent was a current or potential donor. But universities must stay true to their core mission of enabling the American Dream without discriminating against any particular group. I suggest three reforms:

First: End the cronyism. Elite colleges and universities must start by eliminating legacy programs that give preferential treatment to the children of alumni. At places like Harvard and Yale, legacy students have admission rates around 30 percent, while overall admission rates hover closer to 5 percent.

Children of alumni at these schools already have advantages. They are likely to grow up wealthy or upper-middle class, attend private schools and have opportunities to play club sports, receive internships and travel abroad. Why also favor them for college admissions?

Most Asian Americans, middle-class and poor whites, and underprivileged minorities do not fare well in the legacy system. Favoring applicants who already have advantages is a retrogressive idea.

Second: Stop the quid pro quo. The Kushner family isn’t the first to influence the admission process with money. Development officers at all universities keep tabs on wealthy donors and make pitches to get their offspring into the institution. Yet admitting students based on the gift potential of their parents muscles out the working class and much of the middle class.

Third: Identify true need. While race and ethnicity may be important considerations in crafting a cohort, socioeconomic status provides a more accurate measure of need. This is where colleges and universities have the greatest potential to transform lives.

If admission officers would practice affirmative action based on socioeconomic disadvantage rather than race and ethnicity alone — while dropping legacy programs and admissions based on donor potential — then a true level playing field would emerge.

Universities would be able to serve all segments of society rather than protect the gaps that persist between the haves and have-nots. I say this even though both my children attended Ivy League schools, which gives a seeming advantage to my grandchildren. In the end fair competition would elevate them along with everyone else.

G. Anand Anandalingam (ganand@rhsmith.umd.edu) is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Management Science and former dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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