White Privilege and College Admissions: the real threat to fair admissions

While Harvard is currently gearing up for a lawsuit around affirmative action and discriminatory admissions policies against Asian Americans, the real vector for race-based discrimination goes on unchallenged: white privilege. While white privilege operates at every level of society, the case against affirmative action cleverly hides how white privilege influences college admissions specifically. This article will answer the question what is white privilege, and will explain how it is pertinent within the discussion of affirmative action and college admissions. To conclude the article, a discussion of how our understanding of white privilege can be rectified in concrete ways to help end racial discrimination in college admissions. The central argument of this article is that white privilege affects admissions in three crucial ways: the importance placed on legacy admissions and connections, affluence-restricted athletics, and wealth.

Before we can analyze how white privilege affects admissions, it is important to examine what white privilege means. Francis E. Kendall, author of Understanding White Privilege, explains white privilege as “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do”. There are two main aspects of white privilege that have been identified over the last 50 years: 1) legal and systemic advantages, or overt white privilege  2) subconscious, psychological prejudice. As Cory Collins writes in his article “What is White Privilege, Really?”, “white privilege is both unconsciously enjoyed and consciously perpetuated. It is both on the surface and deeply embedded into American life”. This dual thrust of white privilege is critical to understanding how white privilege operates both visibly and behind the scenes. While there are some overt policies that can be directly critiqued as favoring whites, the subtle ways that white privilege operates can be much harder to identify. Within the realm of college admissions, both forms of white privilege operate in equal measure.

The first way that white privilege impacts admissions is through overt admissions preference through legacy admissions. To contextualize, legacy admissions are defined as “the boost that most private colleges and universities give to the children of alumni”. The the list of schools that place weight on legacy status include: Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Cornell, Georgetown, the University of Southern California and the University of Virginia. These students who are eligible for legacy consideration are called “legacies”, and they are “admitted at twice the rate of other applicants at some universities, and average SAT scores for legacies are, in some cases, [are] lower than the average scores of their peers”. Thus the advantages accorded to legacies cannot be understated. While legacy admissions are not overtly racialized, Richard D. Kahlenberg explains that these advantages overwhelming benefit white students: “legacy preferences disproportionately benefit white students to the detriment of AsianAmerican, African-American, and Hispanic students… only 7.6% of legacy admits in 2002 were underrepresented minorities, compared with 17.8% of all students”. To drive this point home even further, while “Asian Americans composed 15.7% of all Harvard applicant [they only represented] 3.5% of alumni children”. While legacy admissions could benefit any student who has family that attended the university, research shows that legacy admissions disproportionately benefit white students. As a result, they form one arm of white privilege’s impact on admissions. In concurrence with legacy admission, elite private universities also place a large amount of weight on the connections of a student and there family. For example, “at the University of Texas at Austin, an investigation found that recommendations from state legislators and other influential people helped underqualified students gain acceptance to the school”. These preferences thus elevate “predominantly white, affluent applicants”.

The second way that white privilege impacts admissions is through college preference for white athletes. Though the common conception surrounding recruited athletes is that they are predominantly minority background students, this is false: “the vast bulk of recruited athletes are in sports that are rarely available to low income, particularly urban schools. Those include students whose sports are crew, fencing, squash, and sailing, sports that aren’t offered at public high schools”. Thus, there is a bias in college admissions towards college athletes that is racialized because of access to private education. White athletes therefore have access to sports and scholarships that other minorities may not. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation reveals the true advantage of having sole access to entire sports by stating that “students with strong athletic ability are often admitted despite having weaker academic credentials than other students, with one analysis of 90,000 students at selective colleges and universities estimating that recruited athletes are as much as four times as likely to be admitted as other similarly qualified applicants”. Expanded access to athletics through affluence directly leads to a higher chance of admission despite poorer test scores. Athletic preferences in admissions disproportionately favor white athletes and forms the second channel of influence for white privilege on admissions.

The final way that white privilege impacts admissions is through monetary influence. Journalist Daniel Golden has dedicated a significant part of his life to interrogating white privilege in admissions, and he explains how money impacts admissions in his book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges. Golden has written that “Harvard has formalized [a] system for the wealthiest donors, those giving $1 million or more, through the creation of Harvard’s Committee on University Resources (COUR). Golden found that 336 children of COUR members have gone on to attend Harvard, “an astonishing enrolment rate of one child per major donor”. In essence, Harvard’s Committee on University Resources has created a structure that guarantees Harvard admission based on family donations. Since these donations can influence Harvard’s admissions process, and since Harvard as an institution has a vested interest in making money, it is clear to see that enrolling donor’s children serves as a means to lock down a form of financial security for Harvard. Harvard represents one specific case of how money has served as a means to guarantee white access to the vaulted institutions in concrete ways that are simply not made available to those without the same monetary means.

By analyzing how white privilege impacts college admissions, it becomes evident that the affirmative action has become a useful distraction to keep white hegemony over elite institutions. As Golden writes, “Asian Americans are indeed treated unfairly in admissions, but affirmative action is a convenient scapegoat for those who seek to pit minority groups against each other. A more logical target would be the preferences of privilege”. Though dismantling privilege can be a thorny subject since all three of the vectors mentioned above are not strictly aligned by race, there is no denying the fact that privilege disproportionately favors white applicants. As a result, it is appropriate to call for elite institutions like Harvard to not end affirmative action, but to end policies of privilege that unfairly elevate whites above other racial minorities. For example, Kahlenberg writes in his expert report on Harvard’s admissions that “eliminating legacy preferences is a workable race-neutral strategy. Among the top 10 universities in the widely-cited Shanghai rankings, four (Caltech, U.C.Berkeley, Oxford, and Cambridge) do not employ legacy preferences. Research also finds that the existence of legacy preferences does not increase alumni donations to an institution”. This is just one concrete change that Harvard could make to help end racial discrimination in a concrete way. One could extrapolate this method to the other forms of white privilege in admissions quite easily by arguing for an end to considerations placed on donor gifts and sports that are gated due to affluence. These measures would help to end race based discrimination in admissions by targeting white privilege.

Before closing this essay, it is fruitful to look at a case study that is particularly relevant in this current time period: the Trump family’s access to white privilege within the realm of admissions. As reported by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, “the three Trump children who attended the University of Pennsylvania were eligible for legacy preferences”. In addition, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was accepted to Harvard “after [Harvard] received a $2.5 million pledge from his father, real estate developer and New York University graduate”. While it cannot be claimed that Mr. Kushner or any of the Trump children would not have attended these institutions without legacy preferences or family donations, the simple fact is that they represent a microcosm for how white privilege interacts within the realm of admissions.

In conclusion, if activists want to bring an end to unfair admissions practices and preferences that discriminate against Asian American students, affirmative action is not the right target. Whites are “over-represented in the nation’s 468 most selective and well funded college”, and Asian Americans on average have “to score 140 points higher on their SATs than whites”. If we want to bring an end to racial discrimination in college admissions, we should set our sights not affirmative action but on white privilege.


Written by Wade Holmes