Who will benefit from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down race as a factor in college admissions? Mostly, just wealthy white people.
That’s because the ruling refused to touch so-called “legacy admissions.” Colleges are free to continue giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni, donors, and other well-connected, privileged people.
Former president George W. Bush is a classic example of how legacy admissions are effectively a form of affirmative action for the rich. How else would a mediocre student like him be admitted to Yale University? Because his father and grandfather were Yale alumni.
Legacy admissions give wealthy people a leg-up in ensuring that generational wealth, privilege, and power remain in the family. And the origins of the practice lie in antisemitism.
According to Jerome Karabel’s book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, legacy admissions were a way to reduce the number of Jewish Americans who were academically qualified to win admission but who didn’t fit into the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition that such schools uplifted. Elite universities changed the goal posts, ensuring that family ties gave mediocre but well-connected white Protestants an edge.
That preferential treatment continues today, reinforcing white supremacy.
For example, according to the Ivy League admissions consulting firm Admission Sight, “more than 36 percent of the students in the Harvard Class of 2022 are descendants of previous Harvard students.” Students whose parents didn’t attend Harvard had, since 2015, “a five times lower chance of being accepted.”
And where legacy admissions don’t apply, wealthy families have yet another entry point: plain old bribery.
In a court case stemming from the college admissions scandal that broke in 2019, it was revealed that the University of Southern California was willing to consider applicants whose families offered large donations to the school. These “special interest” or “VIP” donors received preferential treatment.
Even the public University of California system has been found to give preferential treatment to wealthy white applicants. A state audit found that at least 64 people, most of them wealthy and white, were admitted in recent years to UC schools solely because of their family connections and donations.
The Supreme Court’s latest ruling on affirmative action doesn’t end race-based preference. For wealthy white people, it further entrenches it.
The good news is that Neil Gorsuch, a Supreme Court conservative who voted to end affirmative action, also agreed with his dissenting liberal colleagues that legacy admissions had to end.
President Biden responded similarly. “I’m directing the Department of Education to analyze what practices help build… more inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices hold that back,” Biden said after the ruling. That includes “legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”
As Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told MarketWatch, “The longstanding use of legacy and donor preferences in admissions has unfairly elevated children of donors and alumni — who may be excellent students and well-qualified, but are the last people who need an extra leg up in the complicated and competitive college admissions process.”
To that end, Merkley and Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York recently introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, which would end preferential treatment for applications from wealthy, privileged families.
Whether or not the bill moves in Congress, the fact remains that college admissions are biased — toward wealthy white Americans. Those conservatives celebrating the end of affirmative action have exposed yet again how their real agenda is to protect the unfair advantages of wealth.