What the Harvard Case Teaches Us

Whatever the judge rules, we have seen the impact of wealth, alumni connections and athletic skill in elite college admissions, writes Nicholas Soodik.

November 12, 2018

The lawsuit against Harvard University wrapped up last Friday, but District Court Judge Allison Burroughs is not likely to make a decision until 2019. After 15 days of closely watched court proceedings, the delay feels like a cruel anticlimax. Trained on the dramas of legal procedural shows on television, I prefer our courtroom debates tied up neatly soon after closing arguments. Waiting, so they say, is the hardest part.

As the fate of Harvard’s admissions process -- and, in all likelihood, race-conscious admissions practices everywhere -- hangs in the balance, my thoughts drift to my students. Many of them have recently submitted early applications, and they wait, anxiously, hopefully, for the return of a fat envelope from their favorite colleges. My students and I stand together, then, in anticipation.

In the meantime, I think it’s prudent to shift the focus away from the eventual outcomes -- whether the admissions decisions we cannot control or Judge Burroughs’s ruling in the Harvard lawsuit. For obvious reasons, high school seniors and their families often focus exclusively on the results of the college search process, as though gaining admission to college is the only thing that matters. As much as I want for them the same news they crave, I also hope my students know that the college search is as educational as most other elements of their high school experience. When done thoughtfully and deliberately, searching for and applying to college cultivates such habits of mind as self-awareness, independence and self-confidence -- skills that classroom teachers and college professors equally prize. As many students wait to hear admissions decisions, they may be learning a thing or two about tolerating uncertainty, too.

And, as I navigate the uncertainty of Judge Burroughs’s decision, I consider what lessons I want my students to learn from the Harvard case. As important as her ruling will be, the court proceedings have already taught us a lot about elite college admissions. Here are some of the lessons I want my students to learn from what’s been shared in court so far.

  • The wealthy have a colossal advantage when applying to selective colleges. In 2017, The New York Times showed that roughly one in four of the richest students attends an elite university, while less than 0.5 percent of students from the bottom fifth of American families attend such institutions. Internal emails revealed during the trial demonstrate one way the wealthy secure their spots in elite universities. Harvard’s admissions office and school administrators compile an annual “Dean’s Interest List,” a roster of applicants whose admission to the college will inevitably lead to a large donation. The list is not small, either. Court filings document that from 2010 to 2015, 9.34 percent of the undergraduates were flagged as of interest to very wealthy donors. Although Harvard’s acceptance rate in 2015 was 6.2 percent, students on the interest list were admitted at a rate of 42 percent during those six years. The Justice Department is currently investigating bias in admissions at Yale, but Americans ought to examine the fairness of admitting so many students already steeped in privilege. One famous White House adviser might not be so willing to join the conversation.
  • Athletes, too, enjoy a leg up in the admissions process at selective colleges. As we discovered during the trial, Harvard applicants are ranked on a scale of one to six based on their academic qualifications. Nonathletes who received a four on that scale were rarely admitted from 2010 to 2015 -- at a precise and paltry rate of 0.076 percent. Conversely, the recruited athletes who received a four were admitted almost 70 percent of the time, a rate nearly 1,000 times greater. Similarly, nonathletes with the highest or second-highest academic score had an acceptance rate around 16 percent, while athletes with the same academic rating earned admission 83 percent of the time. These discrepancies have implications with regard to race as well. A recent article by Saahil Desai in The Atlantic shared that 65 percent of the student athletes in the Ivy League are white, as are an even higher 79 percent of New England Small College Athletic Conference athletes. In Desai’s words, “college sports at elite schools are a quiet sort of affirmative action for affluent white kids, and play a big role in keeping these institutions so stubbornly white and affluent.”
  • Alumni children at selective colleges reap substantial benefits in admissions decisions. For years, Harvard’s acceptance rate for legacy students has been north of 30 percent, more than six times the overall rate for the current first-year students, and Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research found that legacy status resulted in a 40-percentage-point tip in the admissions process. Defenders argue that these students are also stronger academically, given that their parents are well-educated, but the practice invites a larger consideration of how privilege gets inherited.
  • Lastly, remember that most undergraduates do not attend universities even remotely as selective as Harvard. In fact, only 4 percent of college students in the U.S. are enrolled at institutions that admit fewer than 25 percent of those who apply. In the gated worlds of independent prep schools and affluent public high schools, it’s tempting to believe otherwise, but more than three-quarters of American college students attend four-year colleges that admit more students than they deny. The admissions process at these schools is unlike Harvard’s -- with less attendant anxiety for the applicants -- while the attention to the undergraduate educational experience might be comparable or even superior.

These takeaway points put the lie to the idea that selective college admissions is governed by a simple meritocracy. They might force us to question altogether the meaning of “merit.” The nature of holistic admissions means that a student’s acceptance is not entirely the result of her efforts in high school. Harvard needs a goalie if it has a hockey squad, and that year the varsity letter winner may be more attractive than the captain of the robotics team. Amherst wants a student from every state, and thus the applicants from North Dakota get the nod and the valedictorians from Boston get denied.

Many students might find these decisions dispiriting, but I want to suggest an alternative way of looking at things. High school students often tie their sense of self-worth to the college decisions they receive -- occasionally, even, to the list of colleges to which they apply. Holistic admissions, however, encourages students to find more intrinsic ways of developing confidence and finding meaning. They should learn for the sake of understanding and pursue activities that are fulfilling -- not to fit some mold of an ideal applicant -- because there is no guarantee that straight A’s, AP classes and the editor’s position on the newspaper will result in admission to the college of their choice. In all likelihood, it won’t, but, given that the vast majority of applicants to elite colleges and universities won’t get in, holistic admissions also provides an explanatory filter for students who get denied. There is nothing inadequate or “less than” about such students. They simply might not be what Harvard or Emory or Davidson is looking for that year.

Early next year, I am looking for Judge Burroughs to make a ruling that upholds Harvard’s admissions practices, which allows, in a sense, the institution to continue doing business the same way. Those practices aren’t fair and have flaws, and yet I worry what change would bring. Likewise, my students, despite being reminded not to, may yoke their self-worth to the admissions decisions they receive. As all of us get ready for Thanksgiving and wait, together, on news, I hope they hold on to the values that sustain them and the people who bring them joy. The lessons of elite college admissions may teach them their futures would be better made elsewhere.


Nicholas Soodik is associate director of college counseling at the Pingree School.


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