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The White Admissions Advantage at Harvard: Unfair, But Different from Discrimination Against Asian Americans

03/25/2015 03:11 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

As high school seniors across America await college admissions decisions, here's some food for thought: About one-third of Harvard White students are admitted through special preferences, and that's a conservative estimate. This statistic likely explains why White students have slightly lower average SAT scores (22 points per section) than Asian Americans at Harvard, a key point in the lawsuit filed against Harvard alleging intentional discrimination against Asian Americans.

Other writers have alluded to the significant presence of legacy and athletes at Harvard, but no one has really crunched the numbers when it comes to White legacies and athletes. Despite the fact that the calculations (featured at the end of this piece) require no more than 7th grade math, this information is omitted from the lawsuit and most discussions of Asian American admissions. Instead the public sees dramatic numbers without the proper statistical context. Affirmative action gets blamed instead of legacy admissions for why Asian American enrollments aren't higher in the Ivies. This is a disservice because we need to understand the source of the problem to diagnose a solution. In this case, the lawsuit's proposed solution--eliminating all consideration of race from the admissions process--goes way too far.

When we compare Asian American and White SAT score averages, we are not comparing apples to apples--the White category is thrown off by the significant representation of legacies and athletes. It is critically important to recognize that the Asian-White score gap is likely coming from these specific preferences that Whites disproportionately benefit from, and not because admissions officers are rampantly and randomly discriminating against Asian American applicants, as the lawsuit contends. Even with legacies and athletes in the White student pool, the score gap is fairly slim, at 22 points per section for the Harvard Class of 2017. This is very different from the urban legend that Asian Americans have to stratospherically outscore Whites on the SAT.

When I did the calculations, I was surprised. One-third of White students receiving a boost is a lot. Is it troubling that there are preferences that wealthy Whites are disproportionately more likely to benefit from? Absolutely. Still, it's also a separate and distinct issue from intentional discrimination against Asian Americans.

The Harvard lawsuit does critique legacy admissions and recognizes that removing such preferences can help bolster diversity. However, it goes too far in arguing for the complete elimination and recognition of race during the admissions process. As someone who reads graduate-level applications, I can attest to why we need to see the full context of a student--where he or she is coming from, and what they may contribute to the campus community--when we assess applicants. The lawsuit argues that class should replace race in the admissions process. Greater attention to class is definitely needed, but we still need the ability and flexibility to consider both factors, and many others. Student excellence comes in many forms, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to assess an applicant. For example, Condoleezza Rice was a star high school student; she also had less than stellar PSAT scores. In her memoir she recounts, "my own experience has led me to be rather suspicious of the predictive power of standardized tests." Elsewhere she has commented: "And so I've been a supporter of affirmative action that is not quota based and that does not seek to make race the only factor, but that considers race as one of many factors." This is the policy we need to preserve, the one that opens the doors of opportunity.

The Harvard lawsuit praises the University of California system because of its colorblind approach to admissions, but ironically, the Presidents and Chancellor of the UC system, who might know a thing or two about their own schools, strongly oppose the existing system. They filed a brief in Fisher v. Texas testifying how campuses have suffered due to the lack of diversity in UC institutions. Let's not throw the baby (race-conscious admissions) out with the bathwater (legacy admissions and athlete preferences). There are ways to make admissions more equitable without eliminating affirmative action, and we still need it.

Addendum: The calculations. How did I get to one-third? As noted by Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, about 12-13% of each Harvard class is legacy students. In the 2018 Harvard Crimson survey of first-year students, 15.9% reported being a legacy, but I'll use the most conservative estimate of 12%. Let's estimate that 66% of legacy students are White. (In the 2014 Crimson Graduating Senior Survey, about 81% of legacy respondents were White, but I'll lowball it.) If 66% of legacies are Whites, that's about 8% of the Harvard class who are White and admitted through legacy preferences. For the Class of 2017 who answered the Crimson annual survey, 12.5% were recruited athletes, and 79.3% of recruited athletes were White. 79.3% of 12.5 is 9.9, meaning that about 9.9% of the Harvard class is White recruited athletes. Add the two percentages together and you see that about 18% of Harvard's student body is made up of White students being evaluated uniquely because they are either athletes or legacies. The Class of 2017 is 43% White. That's about 40% (18 divided by 43) of attending White students receiving a boost due to being a legacy or recruited athlete. To account for students who are both legacies and athletes and account for non-respondents to the Crimson survey--the same data used in the lawsuit--a more conservative estimate is that approximately one-third of Harvard White students are admitted through special preference.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of "When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education." She has conducted extensive research on affirmative action, including studies on college student attitudes towards the policy, the impact of socioeconomic diversity, and how Asian Americans benefit from diversity on college campuses.