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From athletes to clarinetists: Who gets preferential treatment in top college admissions?

Research shows that white, wealthy students make up most recruited athletes, legacy admits, and donor-related applicants at schools like Harvard.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to end race-based affirmative action in the college admissions process doesn’t impact those who benefit most from preferential treatment at elite schools: the children of donors, alumni and faculty, and, most especially, recruited athletes.

The decision in the case involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina has reinvigorated the debate about who should be granted access to the nation’s best colleges and universities, and who gets special consideration.

Now that colleges are barred from favoring minority applicants who historically have faced discrimination, civil rights activists, researchers, and education reformers are calling on university leaders to reconsider admission policies that benefit white, wealthy students. Research shows that they make up most recruited athletes, legacy admits, and donor-related applicants at schools like Harvard.

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“The court did not get rid of preferences in admissions,” said Anthony Abraham Jack, a sociology professor at Boston University who researches how to make higher education more accessible to first-generation students. “They got rid of preferences that do not benefit white people.”

The debate over admissions to top schools is fierce as attending an Ivy League school or similarly ranked peers can mean an express train to success. They tend to graduate more US presidents, business leaders, and billionaires than less competitive colleges.

Because top colleges receive thousands more highly qualified applicants than they have seats available, admissions officers consider up to 20 other factors to assemble classes that fulfill the institution’s mission. Those other factors, which are not weighed evenly, can include geography, high school attended, work experience, community service, personality, teacher recommendations, extracurriculars, leadership ability, and being the first in a family to attend college.

In other words, the most competitive colleges look for students from all over the world, especially from rural or far-reaching places, who can handle the workload and academic rigor while also filling their sports teams, orchestras, theater troupes, and less popular academic departments. Admitted students also ideally represent varying points of view, life experiences, and interests.

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Most colleges also want a balance of low-income students who have overcome adversity and those whose families can afford to pay sky-high sticker prices, including families who might support the school financially beyond tuition and fees, to subsidize university operations.

Admissions officers each year are charged with balancing these institutional needs with wish lists from advancement officers aiming to please important donors and coaches vying for as many slots as possible for recruits, said John Thelin, professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky and author of “A History of American Higher Education.” Children of faculty members and those who land on the “dean’s special interest list,” also receive preferential treatment.

“There’s a lot of negotiation” in college admissions decisions, Thelin said. “Doesn’t it always seem amazing that [universities] end up having a clarinetist for the student orchestra or the right number of thespians or a certain number of physics majors?” Thelin said.

No group, however, appears to receive a greater boost in the admissions process than athletes.

Recruited athletes admitted to Harvard are often “substantially weaker than typical applicants,” according to a 2019 analysis of Harvard admissions data by three economists. The report found that a “typical applicant with only a 1 percent chance of admission would see his admission likelihood increase to 98 percent if he were a recruited athlete.”

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Harvard said in a statement that it has “reaffirmed its commitment to the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences.”

“As we said, in the weeks and months ahead, the university will determine how to preserve our essential values, consistent with the Court’s new precedent,” a Harvard spokesperson said.

These students tend to be “advantaged and disproportionately white in part because of the varsity sports Harvard offers,” the 2019 report said. These include crew, tennis, golf, fencing, sailing, and skiing — expensive sports that are rare outside of prep schools or well-funded public high schools, according to the report. Ivy League schools also do not offer athletic scholarships, only need-based financial aid.

Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, an author of the 2019 report, said in an interview that he expected to be “more bothered” by the legacy preferences when he started the analysis. But he learned that the preferences for athletes are much more widespread.

“What I didn’t know going into it was the racial and income composition of those Harvard sports,” Arcidiacono said. “I would have thought that athletics is something that people all have more equal access to, and that’s not the case at Harvard.”

More than 68 percent of recruited athletes, legacies, and applicants of interests to the dean of admissions are white, compared to about 41 percent of typical applicants, the 2019 analysis found. The report also showed that removing preferences for recruited athletes at Harvard would not change the number of Black students but Hispanic and Asian American admissions would increase and white enrollment would fall.

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Athletic coaches at highly competitive schools negotiate for admissions slots each year and typically push recruits to apply through early decision programs so the teams are set early. (Such programs also tend to benefit white, affluent students.) The researchers found that the admission rate of athletes applying to Harvard between 2009 and 2014 was 86 percent, compared to fewer than 5.5 percent for typical applicants.

“Often the term I hear is the country club sport,” Thelin said. “There is an advantage to growing up in a home and going to schools that offer those sports and emphasize summer programs.”

Harvard, which offers more varsity sports than any other US college, spearheaded the tradition of collegiate athletics in 1852 when its crew rowed against Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Today about 1,200 Harvard undergraduates, or 20 percent of all students, participate in athletics — a higher percentage than athletic powerhouse Ohio State University, the 2019 report found.

Student-athletes are often hard-working students who devote hours each week to training and their studies, Thelin said. Athletics also provide a sense of campus pride, energy, and vitality, he added, but universities have to work hard to ensure that athletics don’t compromise the educational mission. The Varsity Blues admissions scandal revealed cracks in elite college athletics when wealthy parents bribed coaches at top schools to get their children admitted.

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Civil rights activists are also taking aim at preferences for legacy applicants. Just days after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, a Boston legal activist group filed a federal complaint calling for an investigation into Harvard’s admissions practices that benefit the children of alumni and donors.

Advocates of ending legacy and donor admissions preferences say that who the applicants parents are should not be a factor. Several schools have already ended the practice, including Amherst College, UMass Amherst, and Johns Hopkins University. Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins, wrote in 2020 that one in eight students benefited from preferences given to relatives of alumni, a practice he ended to increase access for more low-income and underrepresented students.

The analysis of Harvard admissions data found that legacies made up about 14 percent of students accepted to the university between 2010 and 2015. The researchers found that the acceptance rate for legacy applicants during that period was 33.6 percent, about 5.7 times higher than the acceptance rate for nonlegacy applicants.

The analysis also found that ending legacy preferences would increase the number of non-white students admitted to Harvard.

Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons has defended the practice of legacy admissions, saying in a March interview with the Harvard Crimson that the policy has been in place for a “very, very long time.”

Jack, the BU professor and author of ”The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” said that the argument in favor of legacy admissions does not hold up now that colleges cannot consider race as a factor in admissions.

“I am just waiting to see the gymnastics that [colleges and supporters of legacy preferences] are now going to jump through to say that legacy admissions is constitutionally viable, because it’s pure hypocrisy,” Jack said.


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.