The Trump administration’s Department of Justice plans to investigate and possibly sue universities over their affirmative action policies, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. An internal announcement mentioned the investigation of “intentional race-based discrimination” in admissions.
Conservatives have argued for years that affirmative action policies that allow admissions officers to consider race and ethnicity — in addition to a number of other factors, like participation in extracurricular activities, leadership qualities, test scores, and essays — disadvantage white people. But if conservatives were truly concerned about leveling the playing field rather than making it even easier for white people, who have benefited from the accumulation of wealth over generations, to get a leg up in college admissions, they would turn their attention to legacy and other preferences afforded to mostly white, wealthy people.
The legacy factor in college admissions, whereby a student is admitted if one of their relatives, usually parents or grandparents, also attended the same university, is one of the most overlooked policies tilting the playing field. By its very nature, legacy privileges wealthy, white students over students who may have stronger academic performance or a better overall application.
But it’s not just legacy. There are a variety of other problems with the current university admission process. And one of the biggest is evidenced by the way the president’s own son-in-law and now White House adviser Jared Kushner got into his university.
Kushner was admitted into Harvard University in 1998, not long after his father, real estate developer Charles Kushner, pledged $2.5 million to the university. In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Daniel Golden interviewed administrators at Kushner’s high school. In his book, an official from the school told him, “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard.”
Golden, a ProPublica editor, whose book Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities is coming out this fall, spoke with ThinkProgress about the role of legacy and donations to universities in the admissions process.
“Legacy is just one of a number of considerations in college admissions that tilt toward wealthy applicants,” Golden said. “There is also preference for children of non-alumni who are rich and likely to give a lot of money. There is preference for children of influential politicians and celebrities. There is preference for people who play sports that are almost always limited to the rich.”
The problem has only grown worse, Golden said, with universities becoming increasingly dependent on private sources of funding. In a Town and Country article, Golden wrote that although acceptance rates declined for legacies at elite universities, legacies have more of an advantage over non-legacy students. And for those who can pay, the very wealthy have more of an advantage as schools lose small grassroots donors. The average alumni contribution nearly doubled even though the percentage of alumni who donate has dropped. State universities are also vulnerable to giving donors’ children an edge because a number of states have cut higher education in recent years.
“They increasingly rely on private giving, the University of Virginia and many of these universities, because most of their money comes from private sources and they have huge fundraising campaigns,” Golden said. “So they face the same necessity in their view to give admission preference to the children of donors as private universities do. In addition, they’re very likely to give preference to children of influential state legislators who have some say over their university budgets.”
In April, The Washington Post revealed that the University of Virginia’s advancement office keeps a “watch list” of applicants whose families donated to the university. In 2011, an applicant was initially marked as denied, but a university official wrote “$500k” on their file and a note indicated that they should be put on the wait list, the Post reported. The university told the Post that the advancement office, which oversees fundraising, did not have serious influence over admissions.
In 2009, a state commission found that top officials at the University of Illinois had a shadow admissions process for applicants related to donors and politicians. A 2006 email about an applicant reportedly read, “Given his father’s donor status, I may be asking you to admit him.”
A 2015 Kaplan Test Prep survey of admissions officers at 400 top colleges and universities confirmed what many people already know — that connections through wealth or political status matter. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they felt “pressured to accept an applicant who didn’t meet (the) school’s admissions requirements because of who that applicant was connected to.”
Due to this donor influence, getting rid of legacy does not always help curb these advantages. At some universities that have eliminated legacy preference, donations have gone up. The University of Georgia and a few members of the University of California system also saw an increase in donations after getting rid of legacy preferences, according to a 2009 study.
Claims of “reverse discrimination” don’t make much sense for wealthy men like Kushner, and they may make even less sense coming from white women, who have benefited enormously from affirmative action policies. Seventy percent of non-Hispanic white women somewhat or strongly oppose affirmative action, according to a 2014 study.
Although affirmative action policies that consider race are unpopular, perhaps due to misconceptions about how that consideration works, legacy admissions aren’t popular either. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 52 percent of people who responded said colleges shouldn’t take into account whether the applicant’s parent is a graduate.