Book Recommendation: The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden

Affirmative action and the evaluation of race and ethnicity in college admissions is controversial, especially in the state of Texas with the top 10% law. Texas has been a battleground state for court cases, including Sweatt v. Painter (1950), Hopwood v. Texas (1996), and Fisher v. Texas (2013, 2016).

Missing from public conversations about affirmative action are policies that privilege affluent white students.

Daniel Golden in his groundbreaking work The Price of Admission cites legacy students applying to universities like Notre Dame, Stanford, Duke, Harvard and Notre Dame among many others, routinely “make up 10 to 15 percent of student body, often despite lesser credentials.” In practice, some universities confer a legacy advantage equivalent to over 100 points on the SAT. 

Golden’s research suggests that as much as 25% of admissions spaces at elite universities are reserved for already well-off and well-connected populations. In addition to legacies, many universities provide huge advantages for the children of wealthy donors and non-alumni “development cases” whose families may donate in the future. Universities compromise admissions standards and dilute the quality of their student body when they court children of famous celebrities and athletes. 

Underqualified female athletes playing less-popular sports guaranteed under Title IX like polo, squash, rowing, and equestrian receive significant admissions advantages. Title IX, in practice, “has increased gender diversity in college sports while decreasing socioeconomic diversity on athletic teams and campuses as a whole.” Sons and daughters of university faculty and government officials have the ear of presidents and admissions directors who routinely bend admissions standards to let in their unqualified offspring. International admissions staff recruit the world’s richest families.

These informal quota systems often come at the expense of Asian-Americans, middle class Americans from all backgrounds, students attending public high schools, and those who will be the first in their families to attend college. Often, who your parents and your zip code matter more to college admissions than your individual efforts.

UT does better than most universities in admitting students based on their merit. However, it came as no surprise, then, when a controversy broke out in 2014 accusing President Powers of influencing both undergraduate and law school admissions.

An independent inquiry conducted by the Kroll consulting firm found that, between 2009 and 2013, 77 recommendation letters sent directly to the President’s office from state legislators “likely impacted” some decisions. 

Noting that President Powers “faced ‘a lot of pressure’ from donors, alumni, and legislators” the report concludes, “The admission rates for applicants to whom the letters applied were significantly higher than for the rest of the applicant populations. The report found that the disparities in admission rates could not reasonably be explained by factors of individual merit, such as grades, test scores, and other holistic considerations.” 

Students from underserved communities already face massive disadvantages accessing quality education and securing professional opportunities. It is important to recognize that, when discussing affirmative action, there are two sides to every coin.