BARBER: Redirect your affirmative action anger

Since this year’s Supreme Court decision to limit universities’ use of race as a factor in the admissions process, the conversation surrounding the idea of “meritocracy” should shift to legacy students.

Affirmative action programs proved successful at ensuring colleges provided opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. Despite its efficacy, it has remained unpopular, with more than half of Americans reporting that they disapproved of colleges taking students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds into account when making admissions decisions, according to a Pew Research poll earlier this year.

A conversation with the right helicopter parent will quickly reveal the resentment, anger, and — often — racism that informs the anti-affirmative action argument. I must point out the hypocrisy of those against colleges considering race as a factor taking no issue with legacy admissions.

College affirmative action programs encourage universities to admit a student body that reflects national demographics. 

Even at Harvard, one university the Supreme Court cited as having an unlawful “race-conscious” admissions program, Hispanic/Latino applicants made up only 12.6% of those admitted to Harvard’s Class of 2026, while that demographic accounts for 19% of the country’s population.

Legacy status and connections appear to have a more significant impact on admissions than affirmative action ever did. A National Bureau of Economic Research study from 2019 found that 43% of white students admitted to Harvard were children of alumni, related to faculty or staff, recruited athletes, or applicants on “the dean’s interest list,” meaning their family had donated to Harvard.

According to the school’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, the Class of 2022 was composed of more than 36% legacy students. This statistic presents an obvious bias in the admissions process, that for some reason, Americans don’t find as frustrating as affirmative action.

Some colleges have recognized legacy admissions as an issue and done away with them entirely. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suspended legacy status as a factor in the admissions process and saw a 5% drop in the number of legacy students offered admission in just one year. This drop freed up spots for other students, resulting in the school offering admittance to a record number of first-generation students.

Those against affirmative action will claim they seek a “meritocracy,” which, based on the common understanding of the word, sounds enticing: power in the hands of the most skilled, experienced, and capable.

However, the word’s origin is often lost, misconstrued, or unknown to those who use it to make an argument against affirmative action. “Meritocracy” can be traced back to British sociologist Michael Young’s dystopian novel “The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033,” a social satire that imagined a world in which a hierarchy based on test scores led to a duplication of the old class system, and ultimately, popular revolt.

Parents want to provide for their children. They leverage their social, cultural, and economic position to “pay” their kids’ way into many opportunities in life. College is just one example.

It’s a slippery slope from finishing your fourth grader’s science project to paying your alma mater to admit them. (Varsity Blues scandal, anyone?) And, after decades of politicians rolling back social-safety nets, the risk of a young person “failing” today looms large. It’s reasonable for parents to worry their children won’t be able to afford rent or insurance, let alone pursue their dreams, without a name-brand degree.

The Supreme Court’s decision vindicated those who long directed their anger over an unfair admissions process at historically underrepresented groups that benefited from affirmative action. Now, I hope to see those same people redirect their anger and look at the legacy student-admission rate at the schools they or their children did not get into.


Rachel Barber is the news editor for Marblehead Weekly News.