Your Kid's Legacy Admission May Be One Casualty of Harvard Trial

(Bloomberg) -- They finally got around to it. In the trial of Harvard’s admissions system, currently under attack in a Boston courtroom, there it was -- legacies.

Harvard College could maintain the diverse student body it prizes without considering race if it looked through a socioeconomic lens instead -- and stopped giving a boost to the children of alumni, an expert witness testified on Monday in a closely watched lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-Americans.

Those so-called legacy admissions, raised earlier in the case but under intense scrutiny Monday, create a campus dominated by children of the rich, said Richard Kahlenberg, an advocate of a “race-neutral” system. He was testifying for the plaintiff, a conservative-led group called Students For Fair Admissions, which wants to make Harvard abandon the use of race altogether in its selection process.

“The socioeconomic diversity at Harvard is deeply lacking,” said Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, asserting that there are up to 23 times as many rich students at Harvard as poor ones. “In my opinion, there are a number of race-neutral alternatives available that achieve diversity without compromising the excellence of the institution.”

He suggested stressing geographic diversity and increasing recruitment efforts as well as essentially eliminating preferences for special cases like legacies.

Aiming for the High Court

Students For Fair Admissions, led by affirmative action opponent Edward Blum, claims Harvard effectively caps the number of Asian-American students it accepts while giving what it calls “tips” to other minorities, athletes and the children of faculty, significant donors and alumni. It accuses Harvard of engaging in “racial balancing,” limiting the admission of even the highest-scoring Asian-American students.

The suit is strikingly different from past challenges of race-conscious college admissions in its championing of a minority rather than of whites who feel they have been denied entry by “reverse discrimination.” Another quirk is the involvement of a member of the left-leaning Century Foundation in a conservative cause, though many liberals oppose legacy admissions as regressive.

With the plaintiff narrowly focused on the treatment of Asian-American applicants at a single college, “the future of affirmative action is not on trial here,” its lead attorney, Adam Mortara, declared in his opening statement last week. Yet in its quest to replace Harvard’s means of achieving diversity with a race-blind process, the lawsuit -- grinding on since 2014 and likely headed to a Supreme Court where conservative Brett Kavanaugh was just seated -- seeks to scrap an admissions system the high court has held up as an exemplar, with President Donald Trump’s Justice Department behind the suit.

Despite what the plaintiff says, the suit could ultimately dilute or dismantle affirmative action programs at colleges across the country by making it harder or impossible for them to consider race.

‘What’s So Special About the Wealthy?’

The legacy admissions tradition is only one part of the plaintiff’s broader claim that Harvard discriminates, but its anti-egalitarian shock value sucked up a lot of oxygen in the courtroom on Monday. Other top schools have abandoned legacy admissions as a throwback to another era, Kahlenberg noted, citing Oxford, Cambridge, Caltech and UC Berkeley (a 1996 California law barred the consideration of race in state institutions). Mortara sounded a similar note in his examination of the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana.

“What is so special about wealthy people that Harvard needs to have them overrepresented?” he asked Khurana. Shouldn’t Harvard better reflect America’s socioeconomic mix? Khurana said that wasn’t the school’s mission.

“We’re not trying to mirror the socioeconomic, or income distribution, of the United States,” Khurana said. “What we’re trying to do is to identify talent and to make it possible for people to come to Harvard.”

Harvard says the proposals by Kahlenberg -- himself a graduate of both its college and law school -- would take too high a toll. One university committee found that his race-neutral admissions models showed a 19 percent plunge in students with the highest academic ratings. And during cross-examination, Kahlenberg admitted that in one of his models the proportion of African-American students would fall from 14 to 6 percent, a level he said he wouldn’t support. The model he prefers results in a decline to 10 percent.

Dr. David Card, an economist for Harvard who is expected to testify later in the trial, concluded in an analysis sent to the court in June that Kahlenberg’s proposals would make the student body less diverse. He wrote that Harvard gets far too many qualified applicants -- about 8,000 with perfect grades and GPAs for a class of roughly 1,900 -- to select only the top students from every high school in a Zip code.

“Even considered in combination, the race-neutral alternatives put forward by Mr. Kahlenberg are blunt and ineffective instruments for generating a diverse class, as they limit Harvard’s ability to select applicants based on other characteristics that it values,” Card wrote.

The Whole Kid

Card said his analysis didn’t support the plaintiffs’ claim that Asian-American
applicants are admitted at a lower rate than whites, concluding there
was “no statistically significant difference” even when athletes and the children of legacies and donors were factored in.

Harvard said in a 2015 motion that it had studied alternatives to “various existing practices” and found, for one, that “the number of African-American, Hispanic and other students would decrease by half from current levels.”

A report in April by Harvard stressed its “whole-person admissions process” -- a process Kahlenberg himself praised as recently as 2013 in the Harvard Political Review as “a blueprint for the future of affirmative action.”

As for special cases, the school concluded that athletes contribute to “the deep connection Harvard students and alumni form with the institution and that foster a sense of community on campus” and that the kids of donors and potential donors represent “a very small number of cases -- far too small for the cessation of any such practice to contribute meaningfully to campus diversity.”

And the legacy bonus? It fosters lifelong alumni engagement, according to the report, including as applicant interviewers and financial supporters, a role “essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning.”

In his own report, Kahlenberg noted that legacies get a 40-percentage-point boost in the chance of admission, compared with a 9-point boost for low-income students, according to the school’s analysis. Harvard’s preferential programs “disproportionately benefit wealthy and white students,” he wrote, “policies whose elimination would increase socioeconomic and racial diversity.”

Kahlenberg added that Harvard “could not point to any empirical evidence that legacy preferences had boosted alumni giving.” In his testimony, he disputed the notion that Harvard’s ability to fund financial aid could be affected, as the school has warned. He cited the university’s multi-billion-dollar endowment. It is $39.2 billion through June 30.

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