The Myth of the Privileged Minority in College Applications

Finn Witham, Editor

On October 31 this year, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College. In this lawsuit, the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) challenged Harvard’s use of race and affirmative action in the college admissions process, saying that it violates 14th Amendment principle of equal protection under the law for all. If the Court rules in favor of the SFFA, race-based affirmative action could potentially become unconstitutional. This is an issue bigger than just Harvard: according to the college’s brief in the case, 40% of all U.S. colleges, and 60% of selective schools,use race-based affirmative action in admissions. Regardless of the case’s outcome, it raises the question that seems to come up every college application season: do poor students of color actually have an unfair leg up in the college admissions process?
In the wake of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, American colleges began using affirmative action to correct institutional disadvantages faced by students of color, especially Black and Latino students, in the admissions process. If it is true, as the SFFA and others argue, that this has granted Black and Latino students an “unfair” advantage, then one would expect to see these students disproportionately represented at colleges nationwide. However, this is simply not the case: A 2017 analysis by “The New York Times” found that, even over decades of affirmative action, Black and Latino students are still underrepresented at 100 top U.S. colleges (including the Ivy League and other elite schools). In 2015, Black students made up 15% of the college-age population, but only 6% of the freshman enrollment at these schools; and Latino students made up 22% of the college-age population, but just 13% of the freshman enrollment at these schools.
If affirmative action was as biased as is argued, Black and Latino students should be making up nearly half the class population at top colleges. Clearly, that’s not true. On top of that, this myth distracts from discussion about who has the actual unfair advantage in college admissions: white, wealthy, and legacy students.
According to a study by The Century Foundation, legacy students (which are students whose parents are alumni of the college they’re applying to) make up 10 to 25 percent of the freshman enrollment at top colleges, despite making up a miniscule fraction of college applicants. Legacy students are usually white and are almost never low-income, according to a 2018 article from Inside Higher Ed. Not only are these students disproportionately represented at top schools, but it has been confirmed that they have an unfair advantage: a Harvard study of 30 of the most selective schools in the nation found that legacy students are three times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy students of a similar background.
Even without legacy status, whiter and wealthier students have an upper hand before admissions officers even read their applications. A 2014 analysis by “The Washington Post” found that students whose families make more than $200,000 a year (which are highly likely to be white) score nearly 30% higher SAT scores on average than students whose families make less than $20,000 (who tend to be non-white). Students who are white and wealthy often have the academic and family support needed to do well in school, standardized tests, and extracurricular activities; while poorer students of color typically have financial and social barriers to this success.
A lesser known inequality is the increasing prevalence of early college admittance. According to a 2016 article from “The Washington Post,” over 40-50% of freshman classes at elite colleges are admitted through early decision (ED). As found by Education Reform Now, this benefits whiter, wealthier students because they have a greater ability to apply to college early and binding because they may not need to consider affordability and financial offers from multiple institutions before deciding where to go.
Ultimately, the place a student goes to college has a tremendous impact on their education, their socioeconomic status and their future opportunities. Thus, colleges should be doing everything in their power to avoid discrimination and inequality within the admissions system. Clearly, there is still work to be done to ensure a level playing field for poorer students and students of color by eliminating the unfair advantages given to whiter, wealthier students. This may not be the narrative that is pushed in the media, but it’s true. A fair society with equal treatment for all is at stake.