Beyond Harvard: Are Elite Colleges Doing Enough to Level the Playing Field?
Last year, we watched closely as Harvard admissions officials took the stand in federal court. This year, even with Harvard’s affirmative action case decided (for now), elite college admissions remain on trial in the court of public opinion. The question that we, the public jury, have on our minds is this: are highly selective colleges doing enough to create a fair and level playing field for admission? While 2019 ended with a ruling that affirms Harvard’s ability to use race-conscious admissions to build a diverse class, this larger question still looms large.
Harvard’s case will almost certainly be appealed, meaning that affirmative action as we know it still stands to change or disappear entirely. Even with race-conscious admissions fully intact today, some observers question whether Harvard and it’s elite brethren are really putting opportunity first. Take, for example, the recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, which argues that Harvard’s admissions rates are discriminatory for African-American applicants.
A recent opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed puts a particularly fine point on the issue, accusing elite colleges of hypocrisy. According to author Ryan Craig, highly selective schools “spout the virtues of meritocracy and diversity while continuing to fill themselves to the brim with sons and daughters of the rich and famous.” The piece observes, as many others have, that preferences for legacy and athletic program admits, the emphasis on high standardized test scores, and the practice of filling much of the incoming class with early-decision applicants all work against socioeconomic and racial diversity.
Craig’s piece is noteworthy for the level of mistrust in the admissions process that it reflects. This feeling of mistrust appears to be increasingly common, and it’s not just outside critics who feel the discrepancy between lofty diversity goals and the reality on campus. While reporting on a wave of racist incidents that occurred at Syracuse late last year, Inside Higher Ed documented a sentiment among some students and others close to the campus that sounds quite similar to the hypocrisy argument:
While observers on and off the campus are asking how things could have deteriorated so quickly over such a short time period, others say the explanation is not that complicated. They believe university administrators have simply lost credibility for giving regular lip service about valuing diversity and inclusion while doing little to put those words into tangible action.
While this comment refers more to how minorities are treated once they arrive on campus than to how they are treated in the admissions process, the insight applies to all aspects of the college process. Building meaningful and sustainable diversity is about more than lofty ideals – it takes tangible commitment and action.
The Atlantic published a piece in 2018 entitled, Does it Matter Where you Go to College? The short answer: not so much if you’re wealthy and white, but quite a lot if you’re a minority or first-generation student. And yet, the most selective schools remain “bastions of privilege,” enrolling “more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the entire bottom 60 percent.” The article closed with a point that now seems prophetic light of events in 2019:
In America today, high-income parents are desperate to find the right colleges for their kids. It should be the opposite: The highest-income colleges should be desperate to find the right kids for their seats.
We’ll all remember 2019 as the year that the Varsity Blues scandal made national headlines, showing everyone just how desperate some high-income parents could get.
Importantly, the scandal brought to full boil an already simmering national conversation about fairness, transparency, equity, and opportunity in the elite college admissions process. Everything from the role of legacy admissions and development candidates to athletic recruitment and fairness in testing came into question in the wake of Varsity Blues.
All these debates share an underlying concern: whether the “highest income colleges” are desperate enough “to find their right kids for their seats.” This question pre-dates the celebrity scandals and ivy league trials of 2019 and we can expect to see the public debate on this issue continue to unfold in 2020 and beyond.