THE SUPREME COURT — like the American public — has long been torn on the issue of racial preferences in college admissions. On the one hand, the justices have properly recognized that students learn more — and society benefits — when universities are racially and socioeconomically diverse. On the other hand, the court has held that universities should treat students differently based on skin color only as a last resort. If universities can reasonably achieve racial and economic diversity by other means — such as giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races — then they cannot use race.
I studied this issue carefully as an expert witness for a group that includes a large number of Asian-American applicants in their lawsuit challenging Harvard University’s use of racial preferences. Examining data from 160,000 students who applied to Harvard in recent years, I concluded that if Harvard jettisoned a number of its current preferences that help wealthy whites, and gave a boost to economically disadvantaged students of all races, the school could achieve high levels of racial and economic diversity without resorting to racial preferences or lowering academic standards.
In a decision released Tuesday, US District Judge Allison Burroughs disagreed. She upheld what she called Harvard’s “very fine admissions program” despite considerable evidence that it is anything but that. The court claimed that there are three reasons that “race-neutral alternatives” won’t work at Harvard.
First, the court objected to my suggestion that Harvard boost diversity by getting rid of its substantial preferences that help wealthy whites, saying doing so would “come at considerable costs” to Harvard. Doing away with preferences for the children of alumni and other privileged groups, the court claimed, would damage Harvard’s ability to “achieve desired benefits from relationships with its alumni and other individuals who have made significant contributions to Harvard.” In fact, research shows that wealthy alumni give even in the absence of an institutional bribe. A 2010 study of 100 elite American universities found “no evidence that legacy-preference policies themselves exert an influence on giving behavior.” Oxford, Cambridge, Caltech, and other superb institutions manage to flourish without legacy preferences. It is disturbing that in the very Boston courthouse where wealthy defendants are pleading guilty in the Varsity Blues scandal, preferences for the rich were condoned.
Second, the court suggested that admitting greater numbers of high-achieving disadvantaged students would “require Harvard to sacrifice the academic strength of its class.” In particular, the court pointed to an estimated 53-71 point class-wide decline out of 2400 possible SAT points. But the drop would represent just a one percentage point change (from the 99th percentile to 98th), hardly a “sacrifice,” especially since many of the newly admitted students would have achieved very high scores in the face of considerable economic obstacles.
Third, the court suggested that under a system of socioeconomic preferences, Harvard would be “less diverse than it is currently.” But on most measures, that’s not true. Using economic affirmative action, the models show, the overall share of underrepresented minorities (black, Hispanic, and Native American) would increase from 28 percent to 30 percent. The share of first-generation college students would more than triple, from 7 percent to 25 percent. This change would surely enhance classroom discussions at a university where 2017 research shows there were 23 times as many students from wealthy families as low-income households.
Burroughs raised concern that, under the simulation, the African-American shares would decline from 14 percent to 10 percent. But she did not mention that the modeling underestimated the proportion of African-American students who could be admitted under a full-fledged class-based affirmative action program because experts were not given access to information about student net worth. African-American household income is typically about 60 percent of white income, but because of the ongoing legacy of slavery and housing segregation, black median wealth is just 10 percent of white wealth on average. Including wealth as a factor in admissions is the fair and right thing to do, and would boost black representation. Nor did the court mention that the model’s prediction of 10 percent African-American admissions is a level that Harvard found acceptable as recently as the class of 2016.
The judge ended her decision by quoting moving remarks on the benefits of diversity made by former Brown University President Ruth Simmons, the first African American to lead an Ivy League institution, who noted in testimony that her father was a janitor and mother was a maid. Unfortunately, students like the young Ruth Simmons are rarely admitted under Harvard’s system of racial preferences: 71 percent of underrepresented minorities at Harvard are socioeconomically advantaged.
The district court decision will be appealed, perhaps eventually to the Supreme Court. The paradox is that a conservative Supreme Court decision to curtail the use of race in admissions would lead to a liberal result. Harvard would come up with new, better ways to achieve racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. More sons and daughters of maids and janitors would make their way to a college that now largely shuts them out. Under the new system, Harvard could actually justify its claim to be a true champion of diversity.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of “The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action.” In his personal capacity, he was an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuit against Harvard University.