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POV: When the Real Scandal Is the College Admission Process Itself

Students of privilege “are the true beneficiaries of affirmative action”

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A “side door” ­into elite colleges—that’s what wealthy parents were offered in exchange for bribes of up to half a million dollars in what is being billed as the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the US Department of Justice. Nearly three dozen parents, including well-known celebrities and high-ranking CEOs, college coaches, and people involved in administering college entrance exams, have been charged in the scandal.

It was called the side door because the “back door” was already taken by legacies, friends and family of college administrators, and recruited athletes.

A scandal, they call it, laughably. That people of immense wealth and access would purchase spots at elite colleges would be scandalous if it didn’t perfectly describe the admissions process at too many institutions. That these parents would risk jail time to guarantee that access speaks to their unapologetic embrace of privilege and their willingness to maintain it at all costs.

Of course, our education system was built for the privileged. While rooted in civic engagement, it was designed to further elevate and cement a wealthy white patriarchy at a time when native people were being decimated, black people were enslaved, and women were denied the vote.

Even as education became more accessible, there were limits on how many Jewish students could attend certain colleges, and education was—and in many ways still is—used as a tool to assimilate indigenous, Latinx, immigrant, queer and nonbinary, and nonwhite students.

While many barriers to admittance have since been removed, students with stellar academic credentials can still be practically denied entry based on their parents’ inability to pay. And in a nation where government policies denied access to wealth to generations of black and Latinx people, the ever-rising price of tuition continues to favor the wealthy and well-connected.

These parents who bribed their kids’ way into college probably knew none of this history, although I doubt it would have mattered to them. Elite college presidents know this story well, however, and yet many still privilege the already privileged.

Take, for instance, Harvard University, which has been defending a lawsuit regarding its alleged misuse of race as a factor in admissions. I sat in on the trial for a few days and listened as Harvard revealed its secret sauce for making admissions decisions.

In its process, Harvard gives “tips” to black and brown students, yes. But by far its biggest preferences are reserved for recruited athletes, legacies, applicants on the dean’s or director’s lists (read: wealthy, prominent, mostly white), and the children of faculty and staff (ALDC group, Harvard calls them).

This ALDC group makes up only 5 percent of applicants, but 30 percent of admitted students. When looking at just legacies, that admissions rate rises to 34 percent.

The overall admissions rate for the rest of the pool? Just 5 percent.

What’s worse, Harvard knows these legacies already have an advantage without their tipping the scales. In a recent WBUR interview, Harvard’s president, Larry Bacow, defended preferences for legacy students, saying, in part:

“I don’t deny that we, like many other institutions, when it’s a toss-up, tend to look harder at somebody whose family has a long connection to the institution. It’s done because institutions like Harvard, they did not build themselves. They’ve relied upon people who’ve been willing to work hard to make these institutions the kinds of places that they are.”

Ridiculous. Willingness to work hard has never been a problem for first-generation students, immigrants, students of color, and so many others that won’t show up in many legacy pools.

It’s the ancestors of these students that literally built these institutions, including many who were enslaved or sold to build them. We don’t see their descendants receiving legacy tips at many of our elite institutions, with Georgetown being a notable exception.

It’s those who rely on preferences based on their family’s wealth and connections that aren’t doing the work. It’s not the 4 to 5 percent black students that we routinely see at America’s elite colleges, but these students of privilege that are the true beneficiaries of affirmative action.

The worst part is, as Bacow concedes, they’d be just fine without these preferences. This makes clear that this scandal isn’t about “rogue behavior” and it doesn’t expose a flawed system, but rather one that works exactly as designed.

If colleges are really serious about equity and inclusion, they need to rid themselves of these legacy preferences once and for all. If we want students to compete based on their own merits, let’s start with those who were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.

Raul Fernandez (COM’00, Wheelock’16), Wheelock College of Education & Human Development associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, can be reached at raul@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

11 Comments

11 Comments on POV: When the Real Scandal Is the College Admission Process Itself

  • Bruce on 03.21.2019 at 7:24 am

    All too true. The idea that POC have an advantage in college admission is laughable.

  • Joan Bragar on 03.21.2019 at 7:38 am

    History and impact very clearly laid out. Thank you.

  • Dave on 03.21.2019 at 8:49 am

    How are those who rely on preferences based on their family’s wealth and connections the true beneficiaries of affirmative action? I understand the argument that legacy status holds too much power in the admissions process but a race based affirmative action plan wouldn’t make a difference unless the legacy applicant was an underrepresented minority.

    • David on 03.21.2019 at 10:20 am

      Dave, I believe the reference to ‘affirmative action’ is intended as a challenge to the conventional meaning of the term. e.g., the privilege of wealth (and wealth as a historic function of race) is an insidious under-recognized form of affirmative action, more potent than (the often criticized) affirmative action for women and PoC.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 03.21.2019 at 9:25 am

    Statistically, students whose parents attended the same institution are more likely to make it through to graduation from that institution. Universities favor students who are likely to graduate, because attrition and dropout makes the university look bad on various metrics. For this reason, a parent having attended is a positive aspect. Raul Fernandez, if legacy preference is eliminated, universities will be ignoring this important predictor of college completion. What is your opinion about this?

    • BU Anon on 03.21.2019 at 1:13 pm

      If I may ask, what is your source for this? I was able to find a study supporting the claim that students whose parents have undergraduate degrees are more likely to complete an undergraduate course of study than first-generation students [https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018421], but I can’t seem to find anything to indicate that attending the same institution as one’s parents affects these outcomes. I don’t doubt that the research exists if you say it does, I’d just be curious to know the study methodology, controls, effect size, etc.

    • Raul Fernandez on 03.21.2019 at 1:42 pm

      Catherine, thanks for your question. Statistically, wealth and whiteness are highly predictive of college completion. However, I don’t take that as evidence that we should be focused on admitting mostly wealthy white students. Doing that, and admitting more legacies, might increase our rankings, sure, but at what cost?

      Instead of cherry-picking students who are most-likely to succeed as a means to improve our brand, we should instead focus on being an engine of social change, lifting up those brilliant first-generation students, immigrants, students of color, students with disabilities, and so many others who have already shown promise in spite of having the deck stacked against them.

      As Larry Bacow indicated when talking about legacies, those kids are gonna be alright.

      More data on the connection between wealth and college completion here: https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/high_school_and_beyond/COE-18-Pell-Indicators-f.pdf

  • E.B. Benson on 03.21.2019 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks for the essay. I think you have it right. I hope the scandal about parents paying to open the secret and illegitimate “side door” of admission to universities for their children would also highlight the “back door” that has always been open to the wealthy who make large gifts to the university and to “legacies” — and bring an end to the back door admission policies. Unfortunately there seems to be no groundswell to eliminate the back door. I think there is too much money and connections keeping it open.

    I attended an “elite” law school, where I met prep school students for the first time and probably some legacies. I learned that my law school did indeed have a back door through which it admitted legacies and those whose parents were able to shower large amounts of cash on the university. What’s interesting is that the back door entrants simply blended in with most of the class. We were never able to tell which of the wealthy and connected got in through the back door and who got in through the front door with the rest of us. There were rumors, based mostly on how people were doing in class.

  • Donald E. Denniston on 03.21.2019 at 4:06 pm

    Absolutely “right on!!!”

  • Alexandra Bertran on 03.22.2019 at 7:08 am

    A considered and well-researched perpective elegantly framed. Well done. And thank you for your contribution to the discourse.

  • Jana Mulkern on 04.01.2019 at 1:10 pm

    Important piece, Raul – great job. I was incredulous when one of the news station’s anchor said: “We’re not talking about someone’s parents donating money or a building to the school to give their kid a better chance at admission, we’re talking about paying to alter test scores or for fake athlete recruiting.” I looked at my hubs and said -“How can he think EITHER is ok?! Isn’t bribery, still bribery? So, if it’s out in the open, it’s ok?” – It’s so unfair and even the anchor was showing his privilege by his thoughtless statement. I’m glad you had a lot more to say and so well articulated here. Appreciate you making this important point so well. Thanks again!

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