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Affirmative Action Should Be About Class, Not Race. Ending Legacy Admissions Is the First Step.

By Marissa Li, Contributing Opinion Writer
Marissa Li ’24 is an Applied Math concentrator in Eliot House. ​​​​​​​

As a Harvard student, I recognize that I’m only here because the College has grown more diverse. The institution that primarily served wealthy, white, male Boston Brahmins in the 19th century has today opened its doors to people of all classes, races, genders, sexualities, nationalities, religions, and more. Seeing the diversity amongst my classmates gives me pride while walking through campus.

All college campuses and workplaces should strive for diversity: Diverse perspectives, stemming from diverse experiences, enrich our conversations and work.

However, as it currently stands, affirmative action centered around race seems too blunt a mechanism to completely and respectfully consider the unique backgrounds and resources of individual applicants. For example, an analysis found that Asian Americans consistently receive lower personality ratings than all other racial groups. This dispreference disregards the heterogeneity present in the Asian American community, which encapsulates vast multicultural and multiethnic backgrounds stretching across the world’s largest continent, as well as the greatest income inequality amongst racial groups in the United States.

This overlooking of economic background for the more general consideration of race is not unique to Asian American applicants. The tips given by our race-conscious affirmative action system seem to primarily benefit well-off minorities, with 71 percent of Black and Hispanic students at Harvard coming from college-educated homes with incomes above the national median.

I don’t contest the existence of structural racism in the United States. However, social science research suggests that it is economic segregation, not racial, that explains the achievement gap between schools. It is in fact a result of structural racism that race and class are so tightly confounded.

Socioeconomic diversity should be prioritized in college admissions because it can directly ground evaluations of merit, in considering an applicant’s achievements given the resources available to them. A Black student who grew up in the South Side of Chicago with an underfunded public education system will have a drastically different experience and capacity for achievement than a Black student who went to one of the top private schools in Hawaii.

Due to the relationship between race and economic status, this new income-based, race-neutral affirmative action system would still achieve significant racial diversity — while also eliminating extreme cases of unfair evaluation, such as a low-income Asian American or white applicant being penalized for not achieving as much as a wealthy underrepresented minority applicant. Ultimately, such a conceptualization of merit would allow Harvard to identify students who have outperformed despite limiting resources, an incredibly difficult and impressive endeavor, and to provide these students with significant resources to unlock their full potential.

Given this conception of merit, it is indefensible for legacy applicants to receive preferential treatment. These applicants, as the children of statistically high-earning Harvard graduates, already have massive advantages in the college admissions process, even before their legacy status is factored in. It is an open secret that Harvard gives preferential treatment towards applicants from families that have donated or will donate to Harvard, which Harvard may think is more likely for alumni. Legacies make up nearly half of the infamous backdoor acceptance Z-list. Their parents may have the funds to bribe officials at elite colleges to admit their children, such as in the Varsity Blues scandal. Clearly, these legacy applicants do not stand on an equal playing field with their peers, because of class advantages passed down from their parents.

Continuing to admit legacy applicants is one way in which Harvard’s admissions process has failed to cultivate socioeconomic diversity on campus. Low-income students regularly report feelings of alienation from their wealthier counterparts, as friendships often cleave along class lines. These lacking cross-class friendships could greatly boost socioeconomic mobility for low-income students.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our neighboring institution MIT does not consider legacy status in its admissions, and — unsurprisingly — exhibits more socioeconomic diversity and increased socioeconomic mobility compared to Harvard. Furthermore, MIT alumni donate more money and more frequently, on average, compared to Harvard alumni. It is entirely possible for Harvard to stop legacy admissions, with no negative repercussions to donations.

Removing legacy admissions would be the first step for Harvard in the necessary pursuit of socioeconomic diversity and merit as defined in the context of applicants’ resources. Finally, Harvard’s affirmative action system could align with American public opinion on the system, as well as social science research findings on the comparatively higher obstacles resulting from class than from race. Racial divisions invoked by arguments from Students for Fair Admissions can start to heal, as all economically disadvantaged peoples see that they are given due opportunity.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.” I strive to live in an America where one may be born economically disadvantaged but ascend the socioeconomic ladder due to equal opportunity. After all, that’s what the American dream is all about. Harvard can engineer this dream, for the thousands of applicants it admits per year, by prioritizing socioeconomic diversity — and it all starts with ending legacy admissions.

Marissa Li ’24 is an Applied Math concentrator in Eliot House.

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