Looking at college admission preferences

Scott Reeder
Posted 2/4/22

Colleges should admit the most qualified applicant.

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Looking at college admission preferences


Colleges should admit the most qualified applicant.

That’s the way many of us were taught life is supposed to work. But we know it often doesn’t.

The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the issue of university admissions in its upcoming term. It will look at the admission formulas used by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina that give extra help to Black and Hispanic applicants who apply.

Some Asian and white applicants were turned away from these universities while Black and Hispanic candidates with lower test scores were admitted. And they say it isn’t fair. But it also is unfair that many African American and Hispanic kids reside in neighborhoods with underperforming schools that fail to adequately prepare them. 

There are strong arguments on both sides but something that is rarely discussed is a different set of preferences that are inherently wrong – but legal.  I’m talking about “development admits,” the children of wealthy donors. 

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize looking at this phenomenon and went on to write the 2006 book, “The Price of Admission.” It’s one of my favorite works of investigative journalism. 

I first became aware of the issue when I read a Wall Street Journal story in 2003 about a prominent family with roots deep in Illinois: the Bunns.

Here is the first few paragraphs of the story: 

“DURHAM, N.C. — Despite her boarding-school education and a personal tutor, Maude Bunn's SAT scores weren't high enough for a typical student to earn admission to Duke University.

But Ms. Bunn had something else going for her — coffeemakers. Her Bunn forebears built a fortune on them and, with Duke hoping to woo her wealthy parents as donors, she was admitted.

Afterward, her parents promptly became co-chairmen of a Duke fund-raising effort aimed at other Duke parents. ‘My child was given a gift, she got in, and now I'm giving back,’ says Maude's mother, Cissy Bunn, who declines to say how much the (Lake Forrest) family has contributed to the university.”

Later in the story, Cissy Bunn acknowledges her daughter didn't fit the academic profile of a Duke student saying, "She's bright, she had good grades, but she doesn't meet the superstar status." 

She then added, "Did my normal child take the place of somebody who could really make a difference in the world? Sure, yes, to an extent. But there are so many things you can lose sleep over. I'm happy for me and my child."

When I first read that quote, I was outraged. It had never occurred to me that rich people received preferential treatment when applying to colleges. 

The story made me think of Danny my roommate my junior year at Iowa State University.  Danny was a bright, motivated student who dreamed of being an aerospace engineer. But he graduated from a failing high school in a poorer Chicago neighborhood. 

My roommate, who happened to be African American, had many of the precursors associated with academic success: a loving, stable two-parent family that valued hard-work. 

Perhaps the biggest drawback was the high school he attended. The institution didn’t adequately prepare him for college. For example, it didn’t offer the advanced math classes necessary for a budding engineering student to succeed.

While his college peers were taking calculus, he was enrolled in remedial math. 

In many ways, the future academic performance of college students isn’t determined just by effort or intellect but by their home zip code. Danny lasted a year on campus and never returned. 

That’s why I have long favored giving parents vouchers that they can use at either public, charter or private schools. It would give academic choices to families otherwise trapped. 

The fact that youngsters in predominantly Black or Hispanic neighborhoods often are forced to attend schools that perform far below the national average is a form of systemic racism.

Another form of racism is interpersonal. For example, in her book “Becoming,” Michelle Obama writes about the mother of one of her white roommates being so appalled that her daughter was assigned a Black roommate that she hectored university administrators until her daughter was moved to a different room. 

Along those lines, I remember that my college roommate Danny and I were proud uncles. We both had pictures of our young nieces framed above our desks. My niece was about three and his was one. 

I can’t count the number of times, a white person came into our room and saw the picture above his desk and said, “Oh my God, he’s got a kid.” Never once did anyone look at my desk and say, “Is that your daughter, Scott?” 

A recent New Yorker article noted that Harvard has more students from families in the top one percent of wealth than in the bottom 60 percent. And yet this is the university fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for greater “diversity.” 

How about economic diversity? Why not admit more kids from the middle and working classes

and fewer from ultra-wealthy families? Strange, I haven’t heard any groundswell among college administrators to do that.

To be honest, I don’t have a ready opinion on how the Supreme Court should finesse the issue of racial preferences this year. It’s a terribly divisive issue. 

But something most Americans can agree upon is that a group not needing extra help getting into college is the children of the wealthiest one percent. It makes little sense to cut a break to someone because of the size of their parents’ pocketbooks.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.