An Asian American Perspective on Affirmative Action and Legacy Admissions

Expos, Writing

by Darren Jian

One of the most high-profile legal cases in higher education today is Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the lawsuit alleging that Harvard University unconstitutionally engages in racial balancing by keeping the number of Asian students artificially low in order to admit more black and Hispanic applicants. Students for Fair Admissions alleged that Harvard held Asian Americans to a higher standard than other students during its admissions process, disproportionately hurting their chances of acceptance. Last month, a federal judge ruled that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian American applicants.

Students for Fair Admissions claims its mission is to “restore the original principles of our nation’s civil rights movement.” However, its president Edward Blum — a white, conservative legal strategist— has a history of attacking affirmative action, voting rights and civil rights causes. In 2008, Blum orchestrated a challenge to race-based admission in higher education, helping a white woman to sue the University of Texas for rejecting her because of her race.

In response to the ruling, Blum said he “needed Asian plaintiffs” to continue his crusade against affirmative action. He knew that it would be harder to condemn an attack on affirmative action if it came from a minority group. Blum deliberately targeted Asian applicants, making calls and publishing online advertisements (see above) that read: “Were you denied admission to Harvard? It may be because you’re the wrong race.” Posing as a champion of equality, Blum was orchestrating a complicated racial chess game, using Asian Americans as a pawn to advance an anti-POC agenda.

This strategy echoes a broader historical pattern where white America pits minorities against each other, forcing them to compete over the few opportunities they are allotted. The resulting narrative frames affirmative action as a zero-sum game where black and Latinx students can only win if Asian students lose.

This narrative is both flawed and dangerous because it shifts focus away from the fact that the higher education system is stacked against all minority and low-income Americans––black, Latinx, or Asian American––due to institutions like legacy preferences that seek to propagate existing social hierarchies. Although the Harvard lawsuit sparked a conversation about the role of race in the college admissions process, unfortunately, there has been no similarly widespread discussion about how legacy admissions essentially serve as a form of affirmative action for the wealthy and white.

In connection with the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, Harvard was forced to disclose data on legacy preferences, revealing that the admissions rate for legacy applicants was five times the rate of non-legacy students. For the Harvard University classes of 2014 through 2019, the admit rate for legacies was 33.6 percent, more than five times the admit rate for non-legacies. Students without legacy status were admitted at an average rate of only 5.9 percent. In an analysis conducted by The Harvard Crimson, 28 percent of the class of 2019, 27 percent of the class of 2020, 29 percent of the class of 2021, and 36 percent of the class of 2022 was comprised of legacy students. 

This begs the question: what is the demographic breakdown of these legacy admits, who make up roughly a third of the Harvard student body? According to a study of the class of 2019, 70 percent of legacy applicants were white, compared to just 40 percent of non-legacy applicants. Among white applicants who were accepted into Harvard, 21.5% had legacy status. Only 6.6% of accepted Asian applicants and 4.8% of accepted African American applicants were legacies. Looking at the wealth of these disproportionately white legacy students, 43 percent came from households that earn more than $500,000 a year, versus 15 percent of the class overall.

This trend is mirrored at other colleges: according to a 2008 study by Duke, the university’s legacy students were significantly more likely to be white and to have attended private schools than the rest of the student body. In 2017, Georgetown’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Charles Deacon, admitted that legacy students tended to be whiter and have wealthier economic backgrounds than the university as a whole.

Factoring legacy into admissions disproportionately benefits white, affluent students, who already have an established presence at these universities. The system of legacy admissions––which was originally created in the 1920s to keep Jewish students out of elite colleges––exemplifies the institutional disadvantages faced by students from underprivileged and minority backgrounds. By ensuring increased socioeconomic privileges for white families, legacy preferences manipulate the system in favor of the wealthy, maintain racial hierarchies, and impede efforts to expand educational opportunities to historically-excluded populations, including Asian Americans.

Now that their representation on college campuses has increased, Asian Americans who stand to benefit from legacy admissions in greater numbers than before may have mixed feelings about abolishing these preferences that have benefited white families for generations. However, due to historical and ongoing inequities in education, the pool of legacy applicants from racial minority groups is disproportionately small, and this will remain the case until structural barriers to educational opportunity are removed.
Legacy preferences are “based on ancestry … yet offer none of the countervailing benefits of affirmative action, such as remedying past discrimination or promoting educational diversity,” according to Richard Kahlenberg, author of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. Affirmative action is necessary to maintain a campus environment where students can interact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Legacy admissions are not, and that’s where the focus of the Asian American community should be. In fighting these structures that disproportionately benefit the white and wealthy, Asian Americans can both support student diversity and advance their own self-interests.