Autumn a new academic year are upon us, which means that selective colleges are engaged in the annual ritual of singing the praises of their new freshman classes.
Surf the websites of such institutions and you will find press releases boasting that they have increased their black and Hispanic enrollments, admitted bumper crops of National Merit scholars or became the destination of choice for hordes of high school valedictorians. Many are bragging about the large share of applicants they rejected, as a way of conveying to the world just how popular and selective they are.
What they almost never say is that many of the applicants who were rejected were far more qualified than those accepted. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, it was not the black and Hispanic beneficiaries of affirmative action, but the rich white kids with cash and connections who elbowed most of the worthier applicants aside.
Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America’s highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admissions standards.
Five years ago, two researchers working for the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, took the academic profiles of students admitted into 146 colleges in the top two tiers of Barron’s college guide and matched them up against the institutions’ advertised requirements in terms of high school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and records of involvement in extracurricular activities. White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.
Who are these mediocre white students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.
A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list.