If the Trump administration really intends to examine discriminatory college-admission policies, as a New York Times report suggests, it had best be prepared for what it will find: A lot of white people who benefit from admission preferences that have been around far longer than affirmative action.
That reality may surprise this administration, which rode a wave of white resentment into office — a resentment its leadership continues to fan. On the other hand, President Trump is intimately familiar with the ways that college admissions practices aid members of the wealthy white establishment.
The three Trump children who attended the University of Pennsylvania were eligible for legacy preferences — the boost that most private colleges and universities give to the children of alumni. Overwhelmingly, it benefits white people.
So does the advantage of having a well-connected or famous relative. At the University of Texas at Austin, an investigation found that recommendations from state legislators and other influential people helped underqualified students gain acceptance to the school. This is the same school that had to defend its affirmative action program for racial minorities before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court upheld the program last year, ruling that universities may consider race as one of multiple factors in admissions.
According to a report in the New York Times on Wednesday, the Justice Department's civil rights division plans to investigate and possibly sue colleges for admissions policies that it determines to be intentionally racially discriminatory. Though the details are unclear, the target seems to be affirmative action programs that help high-achieving students of color gain a leg up on admissions. The department almost certainly won't be going after the ages-old policies that have long given white students the advantage — policies that this Justice Department might argue are only discriminatory in effect, not intent.
And those de facto advantages run deep. Beyond legacy and connections, consider good old money. "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates," by Daniel Golden, details how the son of former Sen. Bill Frist was accepted at Princeton after his family donated millions of dollars. Businessman Robert Bass gave $25 million to Stanford University, which then accepted his daughter. And Jared Kushner's father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University, which then accepted the student who would become Trump's son-in-law and advisor. The students may have won admission without their parents' donations, but the contributions gave them an advantage that less well-heeled applicants couldn't match.
Selective colleges' hunger for athletes also benefits white applicants above other groups. These recruited athletes typically "commit" to a university long before other students are even allowed to submit their applications. And once admitted, they generally under-perform, getting lower grades than other students, according to a 2016 report titled "True Merit" by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
"Moreover," the report says, "the popular notion that recruited athletes tend to come from minority and indigent families turns out to be just false; at least among the highly selective institutions, the vast bulk of recruited athletes are in sports that are rarely available to low-income, particularly urban schools." Those include students whose sports are crew, fencing, squash and sailing, sports that aren't offered at public high schools. The thousands of dollars in private training is far beyond the reach of the working class.
If the Justice Department's investigation seeks to create some sort of pure meritocracy, it will have to consider these and other questions. What is merit, after all, in academics? It has been defined in terms of grades and test scores, but what about perseverance, hard work and contributions to family, community and the world? For that matter, any investigation should be ready to find that white students are not the most put-upon group when it comes to race-based admissions policies. That title probably belongs to Asian American students who, because so many of them are stellar achievers academically, have often had to jump through higher hoops than any other students in order to gain admission.
Here's another group, less well known, that has benefited from preferential admission policies: men. There are more qualified college applications from women, who generally get higher grades and account for more than 70% of the valedictorians nationwide. Seeking to create some level of gender balance, many colleges accept a higher percentage of the applications they receive from males than from females.
Affirmative action programs that give some consideration to black, Latino and Native American applicants aren't bestowing a fabulous special privilege that elevates some races over others. They are attempting to level the playing field just a bit after their own admissions policies gave the edge to white students for generations, admissions policies that unaccountably and unfairly persist to this day.