Our National Conversation on Higher Ed Has Next to Nothing to Do With Higher Ed's Real Problems
"stop fixating on Harvard" cuts in multiple directions
There’s a lot of talk in the ether about legacy admissions and why they’re bad, sometimes used as a smarty-pants addendum to discussion of racial admissions preferences. And I don’t have a problem with this, in a vacuum, as legacy admissions are indeed very dumb. But there’s a lack of context and proportion here, as well as the common failure to understand what the average applicant faces in terms of admissions percentages and what the real problem with the system is. There’s also a committed refusal to see colleges for what they are, which is profit-seeking cartels whose endorsement of social justice is no more sincere than that of a Goldman Sachs diversity statement. In general, we debate college in public life by discussing issues relevant only to a tiny percentage of institutions that enroll an even smaller percentage of all students and pretend that they care about fairness or equality.
First, legacy admissions are practiced by a small number of institutions and account for a small percentage of admitted students at schools that do. Yes, a fairly large percentage of the most competitive colleges and universities practice some sort of legacy preference, 56% of the top 250 colleges in terms of admissions percentage. But, as I will continue to insist, it’s profoundly important to understand that these elite institutions are vastly different from the median college and enroll far fewer students than their behemoth counterparts. (Remember that there are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, though the precise number is permanently muddled by definitional questions.) Most colleges don’t have any legacy preferences not because they’re too principled but because nobody needs legacy preferences to get in. Less than 15% of colleges reject more students than they accept, those that do have on average far smaller enrollment figures than the norm, and almost 40% of colleges admit almost everyone who applies. So those 140 top schools that still practice legacy admissions represent a very small portion of total admissions. And that number has declined precipitously in the past several decades. It’s just not rational to look at our higher ed system and conclude that legacy admissions are one of the bigger problems.
The issue here is that when people say “legacy” what they really mean is “rich kids getting preferential treatment.” But the whole system is bent towards giving rich kids preferential treatment, legacy admissions are just one of myriad ways that this preference is expressed, and this condition is utterly baked into the finances of elite higher ed. It’s so inherent to the basic functioning of elite institutions that it’s essentially impossible to imagine real reform of this condition happening. Most schools are totally tuition-dependent, and thus enrollment-dependent. But the elite few with huge endowments get rich through parent/alumni donations and the interest that they accrue from same. They’re not going to stop finding ways to attract rich kids with rich parents who will swell their coffers. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that private colleges were founded more or less explicitly to perpetuate the elite castes and their holds on power, typically conceiving of education as ancillary to that goal. The notion that private colleges have some social justice function is a totally ahistorical idea that has been grafted on as an ex post facto justification. You can’t turn these institutions into vehicles for equality through policy. If you want to put an end to preference for rich kids, overthrow capitalism. That’s really your only option.
Meanwhile it’s essentially impossible to accurately quantify the impact of race-based affirmative action on college admissions overall. Less than 15% of colleges self-report that race has a considerable or moderate impact on their admissions criteria. But self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, and this is a classic example of where the incentives complicate such self-disclosures. Within the world of academia, there’s intense pressure for colleges and their constituent departments to appear to work hard to diversify. But the effort to attract the most applicants (for most schools) and the most competitive applicants (for elite schools) is a powerful driver of actual institutional behavior, and here the incentives can cut in the opposite direction. Most applicants are white and Asian, an even higher percentage of academically elite applicants are white and Asian, and attractive parent profiles (read: future donors with money) are dominantly white. Meanwhile many of those are in practice antagonistic towards racial preferences in college, even while they may signal their support for such policies on Facebook or in PTA meetings. It’s a narrow line that colleges have to walk. The embarrassment of recent lawsuits by Asian applicants that forced open Harvard’s books, revealing that the deck really is stacked against Asian kids there, shows that there’s simply no percentage in colleges getting too transparent about this stuff unless compelled to by law.
For example, it’s absolutely an open secret within higher education that potential applicants can perceive a given school to be “too Asian,” which is apparently undesirable for social reasons and for fear that these Asian students represent stiff academic competition. Affirmative action rhetoric presents the perfect opportunity for self-interested colleges to tweak their student bodies to avoid this problem. If you think the University of California has not been motivated in part by an urge to reduce their Asian population in their recent “racial justice” reforms, you’re out of your mind. Of course I understand wanting to defend the principle of racial diversity in higher ed, as a defender of race-based affirmative action myself. But the idea that because you can articulate a noble justification for a policy, that policy is therefore being enacted for noble reasons, is the kind of naivete towards institutions that progressive people should really avoid.
It works the other way too. Racial preferences are illegal in public college admissions in nine states, but talk to people privately in those systems and you will find that there are a lot of workarounds. Sometimes this is above board, such as in California, where the top 9% of graduates from public high schools are guaranteed admission to the competitive UC system; because of the segregation endemic to American public schooling, this functions in effect as a system to increase racial diversity. In other places, the admissions departments simply put their thumbs on the scales in subtle ways that increase diversity - nobody is really checking, in most states, and proving that this is happening in the inherently subjective world of admissions would be difficult. (Are there also admissions departments that are disadvantaging applicants of color systematically but invisibly? Absolutely, of course.) And barring active discrimination against a legally protected class, private universities have essentially total leeway to admit whoever they want. So how does affirmative action, explicit or secret, impact the college admissions game writ large? Nobody knows, and no study I’ve seen that attempts to quantify it seems remotely credible to me. Everyone simply bends their perception to fit their priors.
And, again, we should hammer home the point above - most colleges accept almost everybody! What makes this conversation perpetually aggravating is that so many people in the media and policy worlds talk as if getting into college is a struggle for most applicants. It’s simply not; if you have a high school diploma and can cut a tuition check, you can almost certainly find a place to land. Our elites have a terribly hard time intuitively understanding this because very close to 90% of people in media have a college degree in a country where the overall figure is less than 40%. And while we don’t have hard numbers here, it’s a certainty that a majority of those in media who are college educated were insanely competitive high school students who went on to elite colleges. That’s a truly rarified condition in our country. Unfortunately this is a classic case of the elite class looking out at the world through Twitter and a handful of prestige publications and seeing only themselves reflected back at them.
The trouble with our system is not that people just can’t get into college. There are many open enrollment universities and many more that maintain a nominally selective admissions policy but are compelled to admit almost every applicant to keep the lights on financially. (I cannot tell you how relentlessly people fixated on getting enrollments up to make ends meet during my time as an administrator in CUNY.) The trouble is a) as we’ve (disastrously) made universal college attendance our policy goal huge numbers of students have enrolled in college who lack anything close to the necessary prerequisite ability, and b) tons of people can’t attend without taking on crippling debt, and this debt burden is skewed towards the marginal students who lack the human capital to then pay back that debt post-graduation. The spiraling costs of college remediation programs and endless controversy over student loan debt are clues to these basic problems. Those are the fundamental issues.
It’s frustrating because people will say “stop fixating on Harvard!” and then return to doing just that.
Yes, I understand that elite college attendance plays an outsized role both in the formation of our elite classes, which has political consequences, and in our conception of higher education. But a Black B-student with a handful of extracurriculars from an average American public high school will be able to get into a vast number of institutions generally and likely into several competitive institutions as well. If they graduate, they’re very likely to enjoy a middle-class or above existence. The real problem is all of the Black students who aren’t B students and all of the students of every race who go to college when they aren’t ready, take on debt, fail out, and can’t pay their loans back. Legacy admissions and affirmative action are irrelevant to their problems. The average student of whatever race does not have to worry about either a legacy admission or an affirmative action admission taking their spot because spots in college simply aren’t generically hard to come by. And while the impact of such programs on small elite colleges is much larger, the vast majority of students are screened out of those schools by their lack of underlying ability long before preferential admissions programs would even factor in. We’re just not talking about meaningful stuff, here.
The broader thing to understand about all of this is that people who should know better have absorbed the idea that, with some policy tweaks, college admissions could be “fair,” “just,” “equitable,” “objective,” or anything else. Affirmative action is a topic where the average liberal simply refuses to engage with the reality rather than the rhetoric. Private colleges jealously guard this information, but there’s every reason to believe that a scandalous amount of the affirmative action slots at elite colleges are going to wealthy international students from Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria, or the first generation children of wealthy parents from those countries, or wealthy international students from Argentina, Ecuador, and Colombia, or the first generation children of wealthy parents from those countries. (I know someone who was employed at a brand-name elite American liberal arts college, in something like the top 30 in acceptance rate, where for the purpose of internal diversity goals Spanish international students are categorized as Hispanic - as in, Spanish from Spain.) I cannot stress this enough: the first function of college admissions departments is revenue generation, through increasing tuition dollars and through attracting enrollees with deep-pocketed parents. Admissions is the most self-interested and least-scrupulous aspect of fundamentally self-interested and unscrupulous institutions. (Just ask two-year colleges about that.)
It gets worse, maybe! The completely unexplored scandal in American higher education is that (it appears, as they don’t talk about it) many American colleges and certainly the large majority of elite colleges use some sort of numeric “multiplier” or algorithm to adjust high school GPAs. As defenders of the SAT and ACT (like me) have pointed out, the insistence that we replace those entrance exams with even greater focus on grade point average doesn’t engage with the fact that GPA is an notoriously noisy indicator. In some schools, the valedictorian has a 3.8, while in others, the top 20 students all have a 4.5. How do colleges account for this? By coming up with complicated systems to tweak the GPAs. As I understand it - and, again, these admissions departments aren’t saying publicly - this often involves looking at all of the applications from a given high school in the prior X years to determine a baseline GPA for applicants from that high school, sometimes with adjustments for the overall averages of all applicants, or applicants from schools with given demographics, etc. Then they adjust from there, also with weightings for different levels of classes (basic, college, advanced, AP, etc), which are also proprietary, obscure, and secret. If you think that your increasing justice by focusing more on GPA, then you have a very odd sense of what justice entails, given that outsiders have essentially no idea what GPA numbers college admissions officers are actually looking at in their determinations.
Now: do secret formulas through which colleges can tweak the one metric liberals want to rely on in admissions make sense to you from an equality standpoint? I’ve just told you the myriad ways they’re already cheating on “fairness” to get the applicants they want. You want to add even more emphasis to that metric, and in doing so give them even greater ability to select on whatever criteria suits them? Say what you will about the SATs, they represent a quantitatively-transparent metric that is controlled by an institution other than the self-interested colleges. (We know that there’s income and race correlations with the SAT because we can do that analysis, which we absolutely can’t do with adjusted GPAs or “holistic” admissions.) GPAs are completely opaque, once you factor in all the ways admissions departments manipulate them. I keep waiting for The New York Times Magazine or somebody to put out a big investigative piece on these adjustments and a national scandal to ensue, but it keeps not happening. There’s a Pulitzer to be had there, guys.
Why does all of this complexity and nuance get completely excised from the public conversation, when these topics have immense consequences for the actual, concrete experience of applying for college? Because “the SAT is racist and has to go” is the kind of simplistic and self-righteous narrative that liberal media has monetized so effectively, while “reverse discrimination is hurting white and Asian kids” is the kind of simplistic and self-righteous narrative that conservative media has monetized so effectively. “Legacy admissions are unfair” is a great talking point, but they imply that there is some possible world where fairness has anything to do with college admissions, and there isn’t. Pointing out that getting rid of standardized tests simply gives colleges more ability to select for wealthy students whose parents are most likely to donate, thus undermining the original purpose of affirmative action, does not make for a good headline or a good tweet; pointing out that legacy admissions are just one small part of how colleges enrich themselves does not lead to simplistic answers, so it goes unheard in media. Legacies are disdained, but money still rules; the SAT is reviled, but GPA-rigging and donor-chasing gets ignored; American-born descendants of African slaves fill a scandalously low number of affirmative action seats, and yet everybody pats themselves on the back for their racial progressivism. Simplicity breeds self-righteousness so complexity is forbidden. And so it goes.