Assessing Socioeconomic Disadvantage in College Admissions

Social IssuesCulture

  • Author William Price Payne
  • Published April 9, 2022
  • Word count 1,625

Intelligent recently reported that 34 percent of whites who applied to college falsified their applications by wrongly claiming that they were racial minorities. According to the research, white males lied 48 percent of the time. White females only lied 16 percent of the time.[1] In a follow-up tweet, Professor Ibram X. Kendi asserted that the research proved that white students maintained their privilege by gaming the admissions process. Critics retorted that the research undermines the belief that white privilege is laced into every aspect of shared existence. If white privilege is pervasive, why do applicants to elite schools gain a benefit when they pretend to be colored?[2]

According to discovery in recent discrimination lawsuits at Ivy League schools, when admission officials must pick between two applicants with similar applications, the minority (excluding Asians) will be selected. Because of this, identifying as a minority when applying to Ivy League universities improves an applicant’s chances for acceptance.[3] For these reasons, white applicants gain an advantage when applying if they identify as a racial minority.

School officials defend racially biased admissions policies (affirmative action) on four grounds. First, minorities are disadvantaged. Second, the composition of the student body should mirror the demographic make-up of the country. Third, grades, test scores, internships, special abilities, notable achievements, awards, references, and the quality of the application must be supplemented by the “whole person” test. The whole person criterion allows admission officials to select students who are less meritorious because they possess intangible qualities that the university values. Fourth, racial diversity improves the academic learning environment.

The above points can be nuanced and debated. For example, how does one objectively measure the racial disadvantage of a college applicant? Why does racial diversity improve the overall learning environment? More importantly, should universities that receive federal money be exempted from civil rights law that forbids discrimination based on race, color, or national origin? Case law allows a little wiggle room when universities are attempting to balance the racial composition of their schools. However, when applying admission policies that consider race, schools cannot use quotas. Instead, they strive for percentile representations. For instance, at Harvard, 28 percent of the student body comes from Black, Latino, and other non-Asian minority categories. Around 42 percent are white Americans.[4]

A consortium of Asian Students has claimed that Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against them. In 2022, the Supreme Court will consider their lawsuit. In the meantime, the president of Harvard reiterated why its admissions policy is necessary. "Considering race as one factor among many in admissions decisions produces a more diverse student body which strengthens the learning environment for all." Students for Fair Admissions countered by saying, "In a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation like ours, the college admissions bar cannot be raised for some races and ethnic groups but lowered for others. Our nation cannot remedy past discrimination and racial preferences with new discrimination and different racial preferences"[5]

In the current debate, no one is saying that universities cannot consider student disadvantage or seek for a diverse student body. Rather, a prima fascia reading of the law says that schools cannot consider race when accepting new students. The use of race is problematic for another reason. Even though the Ivy schools argue that their admission policies balance the racial composition of the student body, universities select between individuals for whom race is only a part of their social identity. It should be noted that races do not apply to school. Individuals do. As such, the rightness of the admission policy should be determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, when two equally qualified applicants are being considered, it’s possible that the rejected white student attended subpar public schools in a desperately impoverished community and the accepted minority student came from a rich family and attended a prestigious college prep school. In this example, the race-based policy favored the one with the greater socioeconomic advantage.

In light of the above scenario, assumptions about Caucasians need to be reevaluated. In fact, there are many white populations in America. Since some are economically privileged and others are not, Ivy League schools should distinguish between the various white groupings. It’s helpful to remember that white includes orphans, Gypsies, the rural poor, day laborers, children from single-parent homes, and a vast assortment of people from grossly dysfunctional homes. Case in point, even though the entire region of Appalachia is economically depressed, has low rates of achievement, and suffers from chronic unemployment, elite schools do not create admission policies to balance that population. [6] If they did, one in twelve students would come from Appalachia? Instead, a white applicant from Appalachia falls into a uber competitive category.

This is the point; some white people don’t enjoy privilege, and some minorities don’t suffer from socioeconomic disadvantage. A person is more than her race. As such, the university application process should measure tangible indicators of disadvantage. Pointedly, why should an Ivy League school use race as the main criterion by which it measures disadvantage and social diversity since it is not a socioeconomic term? Furthermore, from a legal perspective, race is a blurry concept that is hard to define and nearly impossible to operationalize.

The conclusions of the Intelligent research article missed four additional points. One, since race is a social construct, the federal government allows Americans to self-identify as they please on official documents. As such, one does not have to lie or take a DNA test to identify with a social category of her choice when applying to a school. In fact, America does not have a test to determine race. This highlights the problematic nature of Kendi's "gaming the system" tweet. What percentage of African DNA must an American have to qualify as an African American? Can a white-appearing person who comes from mixed parentage call herself Black? After how many generations of assimilation into the American melting pot does a Latino person cease to qualify as Latino?

Second, race favoring admissions policies have greatly demoralized meritorious high school students and disincentivized academic achievement. Exceptional students who graduate from elite universities create new technologies, solve complex problems, and cure vexing diseases. Their success is America’s success! America’s collective progress depends on the cultivation of its most gifted students. For the sake of the world, meritorious achievement should drive admission policies in Ivy League schools.

Third, reports show that growing percentages of young whites are internalizing rhetoric that identifies white as an oppressor term. This is causing social anxiety.[7] Desperately, some whites want to escape from the stigma of that term. Many do this by imagining that they are a racial minority. Others do this by claiming to be a sexual minority. For example, Newsweek reported that 40 percent of Gen-Zs identify as LGBTQ.[8] Society should tell these guilt-ridden students that white is not bad. They can monitor privilege and practice cultural humility without feeling guilt or shame about their skin color, heritage, or life opportunities. How one acknowledges inequality and strives for justice is more important than one’s social location.

Fourth, objective ways to measure socioeconomic disadvantage have been developed. A report by de Castro, Gee, and Takeuchi shows that socioeconomic measurements vary by ethnicity and location. For example, all Asian Americans are not rich and a person living in Los Angeles needs more income than a person in rural Ohio.[9] Professor John Jerrim’s nine-part process to measure disadvantage among those applying to college should be considered because it compensates for localized deviation and does not appeal to race.[10] In his approach, qualification for free lunches and area-level markers are the best indicators of disadvantage. Mental and physical disabilities should also be considered.

In short, racism is a legacy problem that vexes America. It is a social fact that can be measured. Moreover, it is a daily reality for many people. Often it is associated with disadvantage. This problem must not be minimized or ignored. Yet, by itself, race does not equate to disadvantage. Furthermore, how America talks about social inequality is as important as how it seeks to eliminate it. For these reasons, Ivy League schools should create and employ racially neutral admission standards that objectively measure disadvantage. Furthermore, the schools should prioritize achievement.


[1] “34% Of White College Students Lied about Their Race to Improve Chances of Admission, Financial Aid Benefits.” Intelligent, October 22, 2021. https://www.intelligent.com/34-of-white-college-students-lied-about-their-race-to-improve-chances-of-admission-financial-aid-benefits/?adfa.

[2] Ariel Zilber. “Ibram X. Kendi Deletes Tweet on How White College Applicants Lie about Being Black.” Daily Mail Online. (November 1, 2021), https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10150967/Ibram-X-Kendi-deletes-tweet-white-college-applicants-LIE-black.html.

[3] Thomas Ascik et al., “The Ivy League's Race Problem,” Law & Liberty, December 15, 2020, https://lawliberty.org/the-ivy-leagues-race-problem/.

[4] TMC Staff, “Demographics of the Ivy League,” The College Monk, (October 13, 2020), https://www.thecollegemonk.com/blog/ivy-league-demographics.

[5] Andrew Chunk and Lawrence Hurley, “U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Race-Conscious College Admissions,” Reuters, (January 25, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/us-supreme-court-hear-challenge-race-conscious-college-admissions-2022-01-24/.

[6] For an emic understanding of the socioeconomic disadvantage of Appalachia, see J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, NY: Harper, 2016.

[7] “New Data on Gen-Z Perceptions of Pressure, Anxiety, and Empowerment,” Barna Research Group (January 28, 2021), https://www.barna.com/research/gen-z-success/.

[8] Paul Bond, “Nearly 40 Percent of U.S. Gen ZS, 30 Percent of Young Christians Identify as LGBTQ, Poll Shows,” Newsweek (February 8, 2022), https://www.newsweek.com/nearly-40-percent-us-gen-zs-30-percent-christians-identify-lgbtq-poll-shows-1641085.

[9] A. B. de Castro, Gilbert C. Gee, and David T. Takeuchi, “Examining Alternative Measures of Social Disadvantage among Asian Americans: The Relevance of Economic Opportunity, Subjective Social Status, and Financial Strain for Health,” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health 12, no. 5 (2009): 659-671, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10903-009-9258-3.

[10] Jerrims’ work was done in the UK. However, the concepts are applicable to America. John Jerrim, “Research Brief: Measuring Disadvantage,” The Sutton Trust, (May 2021), https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Measuring-Disadvantage.pdf.

Professor William Payne has a PhD in intercultural studies. He has worked in refugee camps, lived on five continents, and conducted ethnographic research in Latin America and Africa. Recently, he concluded a national survey of the religious beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices of the Irish people. He has authored nearly 40 articles, three books, and a 500-page dissertation.

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