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Harvard Professors Discuss Affirmative Action, Legacy Admissions at IOP Forum

The IOP is located at 79 John F. Kennedy St. Two professors spoke about the impact of legacy admissions and the fall of affirmative action at a panel event Tuesday.
The IOP is located at 79 John F. Kennedy St. Two professors spoke about the impact of legacy admissions and the fall of affirmative action at a panel event Tuesday. By Matteo L. Cagliero
By Heorhii Ambartsumov, Contributing Writer

Ahead of Ivy Day on Thursday, a two-professor panel discussed the impact of legacy admissions and the fall of affirmative action on admissions at elite colleges during a Tuesday forum at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

Economics professor Raj Chetty ’00 and David J. Deming, a political economy professor at HKS, discussed the findings of their working paper, which investigates the determinants of admissions to “highly selective private colleges.” The paper focuses on admissions at “Ivy-Plus” institutions, a group of universities including the eight Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke, the University of Chicago, and MIT.

Deming said he does not think the Supreme Court decision — which effectively struck down affirmative action in higher education — will greatly impact the racial composition of Harvard’s student population because of the University’s “resources to practice holistic admissions.”

“They have a lot of ability to look into details of somebody’s application and follow the guidance outlined by the Supreme Court,” Deming said. “I think you’ll see a much bigger impact of affirmative action in public schools — in schools that have a ton of applicants and don’t have an army of admissions officers to evaluate them.”

Chetty agreed with Deming’s prediction, pointing to data from the University of California system after California passed a law abolishing affirmative action in 1996.

“When California banned affirmative action, you did see reductions in racial diversity,” Chetty said.

Chetty added that political pressure surrounding admissions has increased scrutiny of legacy admissions, which he said “one might construe as affirmative action for the rich.”

The co-authors presented data that Chetty said shows legacy status drives an advantage in admissions to Ivy Plus colleges.

“It’s absolutely not true that legacy applicants have an advantage in getting into other institutions where their parents did not go — admissions rates look basically the same,” Chetty said, referencing a figure from the paper. “Showing you that it really is about being a legacy applicant, as opposed to other factors.”

According to Deming, legacy students with the same SAT score as a non-legacy student are roughly five times more likely to be admitted to a university their parents attended.

The authors also discussed the impact of socioeconomic status in the likelihood of admission to elite schools. According to Deming, applicants from “certain non-religious private schools” have a better chance of admittance because of higher “non-academic ratings.”

“It’s things like extracurriculars, recommendation letters, personal ratings,” Deming said. “They tend to score very highly on those things.”

Deming said increased transparency about socioeconomic demographics in colleges could ameliorate some of the inequality in admissions.

“I would like to see colleges publicly report the income distribution of admitted classes so that they can be held accountable for socioeconomic diversity the same way we hold them accountable for other aspects of diversity,” Deming said in an interview with The Crimson.

He added that investigating questions on inequality requires more data on applicants and admissions.

“We’re only starting to have the data to investigate these questions”, he said.

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IOPHarvard Kennedy SchoolEconomicsAdmissionsFacultyAffirmative Action