Harvard’s Affirmative Action for Rich Whites Exposes Myth of Meritocracy

I, for one, welcome our legacy admissions overlords. Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Over the past year, America’s meritocracy has racked up some poor marks.

Back in March, the “Varsity Blues” scandal revealed that a bunch of extremely rich, incredibly insecure parents had been placing their academically unaccomplished children into selective colleges through an elaborate mix of bribery and fraud. This news triggered an explosion of self-righteous Schadenfreude among upper-middle-class parents who’d been working their tails off to buy their kids’ admission to elite finishing schools the old-fashioned way (i.e., through the purchase of a home in an affluent suburb with well-funded public schools, the hiring of a pricey SAT tutor, the bankrolling of various impressive-sounding extracurriculars, etc.). Which, in turn, prompted the self-righteous children of such bourgeois parents to decry their class’s “dream hoarding” ways: A chorus of scholars and pundits observed that, even if America were a perfect meritocracy (untainted by the criminality of Felicity Huffman & Co.), the already affluent’s superior capacity to invest in their offspring’s “human capital” would be enough to undermine mobility and entrench privilege.

That critique garnered renewed attention in recent weeks with the release of Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits’s book The Meritocracy Trap. Building on the themes of his viral 2015 commencement address, Markovits’s book argues that the American economy has become grossly inequitable and misery-inducing precisely because of “meritocracy’s successes.” In his telling, inequality is now driven primarily by the bifurcation of the labor market. Under existing economic arrangements, those at the top of the ladder really do “earn” their privilege by accruing exorbitantly valuable skills and exercising them at a relentless pace. The new one percent is the opposite of a leisure class, as its members work “with crushing intensity, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return.” Then, they invest that return into their children’s expensive educations, thereby reproducing an exceptionally anxious, entitled, and high-skilled pseudo-aristocracy, which is killing upward mobility and eroding human welfare for poor and rich alike.

There’s value in spotlighting the inequities inherent to actually existing meritocracy. And all things equal, it is better to expose and punish rich parents who criminally subvert meritocratic institutions than to let them run wild.

And yet all this hand-wringing about dream hoarders — and basking in Lori Loughlin’s comeuppance — threatens to obscure just how anti-meritocratic America’s elite institutions and economy remain.

Take Harvard University’s admissions practices. A recent, controversial lawsuit accusing the school of discriminating against Asian applicants forced Harvard to disclose “detailed information on [the] demographics, academics, and extracurricular activities” of its applicants, along with its internal ratings of prospective students. This provided researchers with unprecedented insight into how America’s premier university rations access to its campus. Last week, three economists unearthed one stunning fact hiding within that data: Between 2009 and 2014, 43 percent of the white students admitted to Harvard were either athletes, legacies, faculty kids, or the offspring of major donors. And white students with these characteristics were held to a decidedly less-demanding standard than those who lacked them: Roughly three-quarters of these applicants would have been rejected, had they lacked athletic skills or connections, according to the economists’ analysis. Critically, athletic admissions often function as a proxy for familial wealth and/or connections.

As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann explains:

Legacy preferences, which give an edge to the children of alums, have long drawn criticism for skewing college admissions in favor of white, well-off families. But in recent years, athletic recruiting has come under scrutiny for playing a similar role, especially in sports like sailing, skiing, lacrosse, and crew that are particularly popular among wealthier white Americans. The Harvard Crimson’s annual survey found that among the Class of 2019, 43.2 percent of legacies and 20 percent of athletes come from households that earn more than $500,000 a year, versus 15.4 percent of the class overall. 

These dimensions of advantage are largely class-based (you don’t have to be white to give a large donation to Harvard, or finance your child’s sailing education, but you do probably need a lot of disposable income). But owing to the racial composition of America’s economic elite, affirmative action for the wealthy is tantamount to affirmative action for whites: While 43 percent of white Harvard students were athletes, legacies, or the children of faculty or donors, less than 16 percent of their nonwhite peers fit into one of those favored categories.

Regardless, for the purposes of assessing the degree of meritocracy in America’s elite institutions, evidence of class-based affirmative action will suffice. In total, about 30 percent of all seats in each Harvard class are effectively reserved for children with rich, well-connected parents, and/or athletic skills. The historian Nils Gilman tweeted last month that this 30 percent “is the ‘Real Harvard’ — that is, the profitable bit, the part that the aptly named Harvard Corporation cares about; the rest of the students are financial loss leaders whose purpose is to provide a brand halo for the Real Harvard, and to justify the tax shelter.”

In other words: Per Gilman, Harvard is effectively a business that auctions off certificates of legitimation to the American aristocracy’s lackluster heirs and heiresses — that highly selective, meritocratic college it maintains is just an elaborate means of preserving the value of its aristocracy-legitimation services.

Gilman’s assessment is surely a bit reductive. But it contains more than a kernel of truth. Harvard is, in fact, sustained by the patronage of superrich benefactors, not the tuition paid by its students. In 2016, the university took in $1.19 billion in donations, a figure that’s several multiples of what it accrued in tuition. That same year, the Harvard Crimson published this illustration of the university’s finances (note: The endowment is composed in no small part by past gifts from large-dollar donors):

Chart: The Harvard Crimson

Now, even if we stipulate that Harvard is an institution that exists to legitimize hereditary privilege — by providing its patrons’ “failsons and fail-daughters” with the same prestigious credential that it bestows on academically elite strivers — it wouldn’t necessarily follow that all of America’s meritocratic institutions serve the same basic function. But viewed from a certain angle, Harvard’s operations can look analogous to those of the American upper class more broadly: Whether on Harvard’s campus or in the economy writ large, the cutthroat competition between bourgeois strivers for well-remunerated jobs serves to lend an aura of meritocratic legitimacy to the (relatively) idle and hereditary capitalist class whose fortunes underwrite the whole shebang. As Malcolm Harris writes in his critical appraisal of The Meritocracy Trap:

Markovits consistently refers to his meritocrats as “the 1 percent,” but in a mistake so fundamental it can’t possibly be a mere oversight, he doesn’t mean the top 1 percent by wealth (those with assets over $10 million), he means the top 1 percent by income (those with an annual household income of over $420,000). The groups are hardly comparable — one is made up largely of people who own companies, the other of the people who figure out how to make those companies profitable … In the May 2018 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Saez, Zucman, and Piketty repeatedly, explicitly reject the thesis that the richest income earners owe the bulk of their fortunes to labor rather than capital. “The top 1% derives over half of their incomes from capital, the top 0.1% more than two thirds today,” they write. The difference between their less-than-one-third and Markovits’s “perhaps two-thirds or even three-quarters” is massive. In a footnote the economists add, “If anything, it is likely that we underestimate the rise of the capital income share at the top over recent decades.”

To be sure, America’s highest-earning meritocrats, and its biggest recipients of passive capital income, heavily overlap. And Markovits does summon significant evidence that today’s Über-rich hustle more than yesterday’s did.

But in between bouts of lamenting our meritocracy’s excesses, we should take a moment to acknowledge its limited reach. In many respects, this is still Wyatt Koch’s country, we “dream hoarders” just work here.

Harvard’s Admissions Policies Expose Myth of Meritocracy