Why Affirmative Action Isn’t to Blame for Your College Rejection Letter

It’s the most popular—and least reality-based—sentiment of the disgruntled white college applicant with high scores: a black kid took my seat.


It’s college admissions season, and with this year’s record-low admissions rates there are a lot of heartbroken high school seniors around the country who have been shut out of their top-choice campuses.

The angst sometimes veers into indignation, and one Suzy Lee Weiss of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has taken her outrage to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal and the insipid airwaves of the Today Show. Suzy’s grievance letter to the schools that rejected her is nominally a satire, but let’s just say she’s no Jonathan Swift. Here is how she opens her piece:

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It's simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, "Just be yourself." That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself!

Weiss then muses about what she might have done to improve her chances of admission at Yale or the University of Pennsylvania: “worn a headdress to school,” come out of “any closet” or gone to Africa to “scoop up some suffering child” and parlayed the experience into a craven application essay. Saving what is undoubtedly her real beef for last, Weiss writes, she could have “been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything.” By "anything," of course, she means "black."

Leaving aside the glib, privileged flavor of this hokumwhich YingYing Shang diagnoses well at the Huffington PostWeiss’s suggestion that her 2120 on the SAT would have ushered her into Yale this fall if only admissions officers had evaluated the applications on their merits is, to put it very gently, naive. It’s the most popularand least reality-basedsentiment of the disgruntled white college applicant with high scores: a black kid took my seat.

In a 2003 article in Science magazine, professor of education Thomas Kane came up with a good analogy to explain why Weiss and other aggrieved students are mistaken:

Suppose that there were one parking space reserved for disabled drivers in front of a popular restaurant. Eliminating the reserved space would have only a minuscule effect on the parking options for nondisabled drivers. But the sight of the open space may frustrate many passing nondisabled motorists looking for someplace to park.

Circling the parking lot, frustrated drivers tend to think, “if only that space weren’t reserved for a handicapped person, I’d be shopping right now,” but that’s a fundamental error of logic. Any number of other drivers could have taken the unreserved spot—and would have. College admissions decisions trigger a similar bias: a white college senior with strong scores and grades who gets a rejection letter tends to think, “if only Harvard didn’t give preferences to minority races, I’d be heading to Cambridge in a few months.” But there are thousands of students with similar or superior files who would be competing for those seats, making it very unlikely that ending affirmative action would open up a spot for any particular student. Kane’s analysis shows just how little an elite college’s consideration of race in admissions improves the chances of majority-race students:

It is difficult to identify which individuals are paying the cost of race-conscious admissions. In the Spring of 2003, Harvard College accepted only one applicant in 10. Many of the rejected applicants (and, potentially, many more of those who did not bother applying) have better grades and SAT scores than many of the minority applicants who are admitted. A large fraction of these may well believe that they would have been accepted if Harvard had no racial preferences. Yet only about 18% of Harvard's undergraduates are black or Hispanic. Even in the unlikely scenario that ending racial preferences forced all these students to surrender their seats to white and Asian-American students, acceptance rates for the remaining students would only increase from 10 to 12%. If more than 2% of those who were originally denied admission believe that they were the "next in line" and that they would have been admitted in the absence of racial preferences, then the perceived costs will overstate the true costs.

A decade later, this effect is even more pronounced. Using Harvard's 2012 admissions statistics, with black and Hispanic students comprising 21 percent of Harvard’s student body and the acceptance rate at a hair over 6 percent, I calculate that eliminating race-conscious admissions would have improved a white applicant's chances byat most1.2 percent. And this calculation is based on the assumption that none of the 436 black and Hispanic students admitted to Harvard last year would have earned a seat under a race-neutral admissions policy. That suggestion is ludicrous. So the actual impact of ending affirmative action on white candidates’ chances of admission to Harvard would be virtually nil, and well under a one-percent boost.

Weiss mocked the goal of campus diversity in her churlish op-ed days before averring that “diversity is wonderful” in her Today show interview. She clearly is no deep analyst of the role of race in higher education. But the biggest problem in her argument, and the most popular misconception she voices, is the untenable claim that she would be Ivy-bound in September if it weren’t for affirmative action. This conclusion is based on neither lux nor veritas.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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