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Assessing Socioeconomic Disadvantage in College Admissions

The following points are open to nuanced discussion and debate

By KarpenaruPublished 4 months ago 4 min read
Assessing Socioeconomic Disadvantage in College Admissions
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Intelligent recently reported that 34 percent of whites who applied to college falsified their applications by wrongly claiming that they were racial minorities. According to the research, white males lied 48 percent of the time. White females only lied 16 percent of the time.[1] In a follow-up tweet, Professor Ibram X. Kendi asserted that the research proved that white students maintained their privilege by gaming the admissions process. Critics retorted that the research undermines the belief that white privilege is laced into every aspect of shared existence. If white privilege is pervasive, why do applicants to elite schools gain a benefit when they pretend to be colored?[2]

According to discovery in recent discrimination lawsuits at Ivy League schools, when admission officials must pick between two applicants with similar applications, the minority (excluding Asians) will be selected. Because of this, identifying as a minority when applying to Ivy League universities improves an applicant’s chances for acceptance.[3] For these reasons, white applicants gain an advantage when applying if they identify as a racial minority.

School officials defend racially biased admissions policies (affirmative action) on four grounds. First, minorities are disadvantaged. Second, the composition of the student body should mirror the demographic make-up of the country. Third, grades, test scores, internships, special abilities, notable achievements, awards, references, and the quality of the application must be supplemented by the “whole person” test. The whole person criterion allows admission officials to select students who are less meritorious because they possess intangible qualities that the university values. Fourth, racial diversity improves the academic learning environment.

The above points can be nuanced and debated. For example, how does one objectively measure the racial disadvantage of a college applicant? Why does racial diversity improve the overall learning environment? More importantly, should universities that receive federal money be exempted from civil rights law that forbids discrimination based on race, color, or national origin? Case law allows a little wiggle room when universities are attempting to balance the racial composition of their schools. However, when applying admission policies that consider race, schools cannot use quotas. Instead, they strive for percentile representations. For instance, at Harvard, 28 percent of the student body comes from Black, Latino, and other non-Asian minority categories. Around 42 percent are white Americans.[4]

A consortium of Asian Students has claimed that Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against them. In 2022, the Supreme Court will consider their lawsuit. In the meantime, the president of Harvard reiterated why its admissions policy is necessary. "Considering race as one factor among many in admissions decisions produces a more diverse student body which strengthens the learning environment for all." Students for Fair Admissions countered by saying, "In a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation like ours, the college admissions bar cannot be raised for some races and ethnic groups but lowered for others. Our nation cannot remedy past discrimination and racial preferences with new discrimination and different racial preferences"[5]

By Element5 Digital on Unsplash

In the current debate, no one is saying that universities cannot consider student disadvantage or seek for a diverse student body. Rather, a prima fascia reading of the law says that schools cannot consider race when accepting new students. The use of race is problematic for another reason. Even though the Ivy schools argue that their admission policies balance the racial composition of the student body, universities select between individuals for whom race is only a part of their social identity. It should be noted that races do not apply to school. Individuals do. As such, the rightness of the admission policy should be determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, when two equally qualified applicants are being considered, it’s possible that the rejected white student attended subpar public schools in a desperately impoverished community and the accepted minority student came from a rich family and attended a prestigious college prep school. In this example, the race-based policy favored the one with the greater socioeconomic advantage.

In light of the above scenario, assumptions about Caucasians need to be reevaluated. In fact, there are many white populations in America. Since some are economically privileged and others are not, Ivy League schools should distinguish between the various white groupings. It’s helpful to remember that white includes orphans, Gypsies, the rural poor, day laborers, children from single-parent homes, and a vast assortment of people from grossly dysfunctional homes. Case in point, even though the entire region of Appalachia is economically depressed, has low rates of achievement, and suffers from chronic unemployment, elite schools do not create admission policies to balance that population. [6] If they did, one in twelve students would come from Appalachia? Instead, a white applicant from Appalachia falls into a uber competitive category.

This is the point; some white people don’t enjoy privilege, and some minorities don’t suffer from socioeconomic disadvantage. A person is more than her race. As such, the university application process should measure tangible indicators of disadvantage. Pointedly, why should an Ivy League school use race as the main criterion by which it measures disadvantage and social diversity since it is not a socioeconomic term? Furthermore, from a legal perspective, race is a blurry concept that is hard to define and nearly impossible to operationalize.


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