How to Make College Admissions Fair

A student has three proposals.

On March 12, 2019, news broke on the largest college admissions scandal in decades. By bribing coaches and orchestrating standardized test fraud, William Singer and his Edge College & Career Network offered an alternative to fair admissions. For six- to seven-figure sums, America’s wealthy bought their children a ticket to the most prestigious universities in the world. 

Colleges across the country were quick to enact reforms, reviewing admissions practices to close Singer’s infamous “side doors.” But despite the scandal, other unfair practices in college admissions remained untouched. 

Here are three of those unfair practices and how colleges ought to deal with them. 

1/ End legacy admissions

Out of the top 100 colleges in the United States, around three-quarters give relatives of alumni an advantage in the application process—a practice known as legacy admissions. At elite universities, 10-15% of students are legacies, with estimates putting the advantage of legacy status as equivalent to a 160 point bonus on the SAT. After controlling for factors like test scores and GPA, legacy students at elite colleges and universities are three times more likely to be admitted than their peers. 

The idea that college admissions should explicitly favor some students based on their family’s academic history undermines any claim to a meritocratic system. The surprising thing is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a legacy defender who hasn’t ceded the fairness high ground. Instead, the debate around legacy admissions is often centered on precisely how big of an advantage it ends up giving in practice. But without a compelling reason why colleges should be favoring the children of alumni, the fact that the policy is grossly procedurally unfair is enough to say it should go.

One common defense of legacy preference is that it’s crucial to coaxing alumni donors, which helps colleges fulfill their educational missions. A 2017 Harvard committee on legacy concluded that “[alumni’s financial support] helps make the financial aid policies possible that help the diversity and excellence of the College’s student body.” This would be a compelling defense if it had any empirical backing, but there simply aren’t any well-accepted studies showing a causal relationship between legacy preferences and alumni philanthropy. Moreover, many schools that have eliminated legacy admissions have had little issue remaining competitive. According to Johns Hopkins’ Vice Provost for Admissions and Financial Aid, David Phillips, the university faced no financial costs or reduction in donations related to its phasing out of legacy admissions in 2014.

The other justifications for legacy are even less convincing. Some argue that a cross-generational student body helps to build a stronger community. Others claim that legacies are better fits for the university’s culture than non-legacies, given their family’s historical connection. But these supposed benefits of legacy admissions (if they exist at all) don’t outweigh the process’s fundamental unfairness, and colleges should end the practice. 

2/ Stop preferential admissions for athletes

In a 1989 U.S. Senate hearing on illiteracy, former Washington Redskins player Dexter Manley testified that he could not read throughout his four years at Oklahoma State University. Two decades later, a study found that 60% of football and basketball players at UNC-Chapel Hill (ranked the 28th best university in the United States by US News and World Report) read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. 

Though these examples are especially egregious, they represent a real problem with preferential athletic admissions—that athletes are often admitted to colleges ill-fitted to their academic abilities. Though research on the issue is sparse, one 2010 study found that “the average GPA for male recruited athletes is 15 percentile class rank units lower than the average for their non-athlete counterparts, and the corresponding difference for recruited women athletes is 9 units lower than for their non-athlete counterparts.” This isn’t fair to the student-athletes who struggle academically, nor is it fair to their non-athlete fellow applicants, who receive far less of an admissions advantage for their extracurriculars. 

At its core, the academic struggles of many student-athletes are an admissions problem. The complicated process of courting prospective recruits—starting as early as sophomore year of high school—gives student-athletes a considerable leg up. A 2004 study found an athlete’s odds of being admitted to an elite university were four times that of non-athletes. The same study found that while legacy and minority advantage steadily decreased from the early ‘80s to the early 2000s, the athlete advantage skyrocketed, surpassing both by the end of the millennium. 

Proponents of athletic admissions often claim that the revenue sports teams raise helps fund other extracurricular activities and departments. For the most part, however, this just isn’t true: as of 2013, only 20 college football programs, out of more than a thousand, turn a profit. And most non-football sports are even less profitable. 

Another more compelling argument in favor of athletic admissions is that college sports and the campus-wide communities they foster are worth subsidizing, even if it means favoring athletes during admissions. I agree that there is value in a strong college community. At Dartmouth College—where I am a student—the drudgery of winter classes is interrupted by a weekend of cross-country skiing and debauchery called Winter Carnival. Since the 1920s, the centerpiece of the annual carnival has been an elaborate student-constructed snow sculpture—think multi-story pirate ship with working cannons. Seeing students crowded around the sculpture, cracking jokes and working through the night to finish the job, makes it easy to see the tradition’s appeal. However, in recent years, dwindling student interest has made the yearly sculpture a shadow of its impressive predecessors.

It wouldn’t be hard for Dartmouth to save the tradition. They could favor the admission of prospective engineering or arts students who pledge to work on the sculpture—just three or four students a year would be enough. But this doesn’t seem right; even though there’s value in traditions like the Winter Carnival sculpture, saving them isn’t worth sacrificing fairness in admissions. The same principle applies to athletic admissions. Fairness should not take a backseat to promoting community or school spirit. And if college admissions are to be fair, athletic admissions need to go. 

3/ Rethink affirmative action

At his 1965 Howard University commencement address, LBJ declared, “you do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

So long as racial minorities face systemic disadvantages, society must actively combat those inequalities. And tackling deeply ingrained prejudice will often require explicit acknowledgment of race. This is what race-based affirmative action—the policy of favoring the admission of historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities—sets out to do. 

But justice isn’t as straightforward as simply mandating a particular distribution of outcomes or advantages. It’s impossible to calculate, on the individual level, how much a person has been set back by racial discrimination throughout their lifetime. Applying a blanket policy for all applicants of a demographic group will inevitably give some an unfair advantage while leaving others underserved. 

For affirmative action to be as fair as possible, it needs to address applicants’ experiences on the most granular level possible. In practice, this means that a significant portion of the current weight of race-based affirmative action should shift to class-based affirmative action. Doing so would give a needed boost to students disadvantaged by their economic status. Moreover, when an even more specific measure than class is available to account for a given societal disadvantage, colleges should use that instead. Admissions officers could directly consider factors like school quality, neighborhood crime rates, parental education levels, serious health issues, and access to extracurriculars when assessing a student’s application.

Still, there will be some inequities where considering race is as granular as we can get. The fact that teachers overwhelmingly underestimate and underrate black students’ academic performance is one example. Because of circumstances like this—where students are directly disadvantaged due to their race—a limited level of race-based affirmative action is necessary. 

In its current form, affirmative action is a narrow policy, ill-suited to addressing the variety of obstacles faced by college applicants. Truly fair admissions demands we reimagine affirmative action to incorporate a more nuanced and granular understanding of societal disadvantage. 

Nonetheless, our instinctual worry that meddling with distribution of outcomes is unfair needs to be taken seriously. We must approach any affirmative action with the understanding that it is an uncomfortable temporary measure, a bandaid, and not a substitute for the true objective: equality of opportunity.

These deficiencies in college admissions cause real harm to real people. 

When 17-year-old Yousseff Hasweh—then a high school student in Brooklyn—heard about the 2019 college admissions scandal, he wasn’t surprised: “You need to work twice as hard to just get to the same level as students of privileged backgrounds [...] It didn’t shock me because I had already known that. I had already been pushing, as much as I could, to catch up.” 

Young Americans like Hasweh recognize that the flaws of college admissions are more pervasive than the actions of a handful of bad actors. Though they may be cloaked in policies like legacy admissions, athletic admissions, and affirmative action, the deficiencies in the admissions process are so common as to undermine the academy’s basic principles of equality and fairness. If we are to restore societal faith in meritocracy, college admissions need reform. 

Anders Knospe is a student at Dartmouth College studying Philosophy and Computer Science.