A new statistic reveals the startling privilege of white kids admitted to Harvard

The best and brightest and most privileged?
The best and brightest and most privileged?
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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Harvard University is a notoriously tough school to get into, with an acceptance rate of just 4.5% in the most recent admissions cycle for the class of 2023. But it’s significantly easier to land a spot at the esteemed Ivy League institution if you’re a legacy student or an athlete—a fact that disproportionately benefits white applicants.

A new study notes that in the six admissions cycles between 2014 and 2019, 43% of white students admitted to Harvard were either legacies, recruited athletes, children of faculty and staff, or students on the Dean’s Interest List—a list of applicants whose relatives have donated to Harvard, the existence of which only became public knowledge in 2018. By contrast, no more than 16% of admitted students who were African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic fell into one of those favored categories.

The study (pdf), by economists Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom, has not yet been submitted for publication or been peer-reviewed. But the statistics come from data made publicly available in the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) case, a lawsuit brought by Asian-American applicants alleging that Harvard discriminated against them based on race during the admissions process. (Arcidiancono, a professor of economics at Duke University, was an expert witness in the lawsuit on behalf of  SFFA, but his work on the paper was not funded by the group.) 

It’s not news that elite institutions like Harvard give special dispensation to athletic recruits and to applicants whose relatives have a relationship with the schools, whether as alumni or donors. The Wall Street Journal reports that over the past five years, Princeton University admitted 30% of its legacy applicants, compared to 7% of the general applicant pool, while the acceptance rate for legacies at the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, and the University of Virginia is roughly double the rate for the overall applicant pool.

Since Ivy League schools were overwhelmingly white for the bulk of their histories, giving special status to the descendants of previous attendees would seem to perpetuate an unjust history of discrimination. (Indeed, legacy admissions policies were invented to justify discrimination against Jewish students at elite schools.)

The practice of giving recruited athletes preference at elite institutions also has drawn fire for primarily benefitting students from rich, white families, given that a typical roster of Ivy League teams is heavy on sports with a high cost of entry and a country-club sheen, such as tennis, golf, and lacrosse.

But universities typically keep the specifics of their admissions data under wraps, which means that the public hasn’t always had much insight into the extent to which legacies and athletes get a boost. The study’s authors explain that the SFFA case required Harvard to release a lot of the data it otherwise keeps private, “including detailed information on demographics, academics, and extracurricular activities,” as well as information about Harvard’s internal ratings of its applicants.

According to the model that the authors created, based on the newly available data about Harvard’s system of admissions, “roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs.” (The term “ALDC” refers to “recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff.”)

Harvard, which did not respond to our request for a comment on the study, has made real strides in recent years in growing the diversity of its student body. The Harvard class of 2021 was the first to be majority non-white in the school’s nearly 380-year history, a streak that’s continued in the last two admissions cycles. But the school still lags far behind in economic diversity. As Harvard Magazine noted in 2017, “More than half of Harvard students come from the top 10 percent of the income distribution, and the vast majority—more than two-thirds—come from families in the top 20 percent.”

The newly revealed statistics on legacies and athletes are a reminder that inequality in the Ivy League isn’t an accident; it’s by design.