Some Thoughts on Ivy League Admissions—And Affirmative Action—For Donald Trump

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By Mark Naison

Donald Trump’s comments that Barack Obama didn’t have the grades to get into Ivy League schools demonstrates his profound ignorance of the admissions policies of those institutions. According to Bowen, Shapiro et al. who thoroughly researched the admissions policies of elite universities in the United States (and whose conclusions can be found in their 2002 book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values), the greatest admissions advantage at those schools goes not to children of alumni, or underrepresented minorities, but to recruited athletes! Not only are there twice as many recruited athletes as underrepresented minorities at these schools, but the admissions advantage accruing to an athlete, whether male or female, is twice as powerful as those given to a minority or a “legacy”.

We are not talking about a small number of students here. At most Ivy League schools, close to 20 percent of the undergraduates are recruited athletes, and at Williams College, they constitute 40 percent of the student population. Given the variety of the sports encompassed, which go from lacrosse, to golf, to tennis to sailing, to soccer, to hockey along with softball, baseball, basketball and football, it turns out that the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries of “sports affirmative action” are White. Not only are these athletes admitted with significantly lower grades and SATs than the university mean, but their grades in college tend to be lower than those of their fellow students. Nevertheless, their incomes after college are no lower than those of their fellow students because a large proportion of them go into careers in the financial sector, which go out of their way to recruit “Ivy League athletes” as key components of their work force.

The populist resentment against allegedly “undeserving” minorities pushing hardworking White students out of top colleges—which Trump exploits with his rhetoric—turns out to be misplaced. Simply put, there are far more White hockey and football players who get into Ivy League schools with SATs below the school norm than there are Black and Latino students from the inner city.

As someone who spent more than 15 years coaching athletes from diverse racial and class backgrounds in Brooklyn in the 1980s and 1990s, I know this from personal experience as well as from research. One young woman I worked with, a nationally ranked tennis player who was highly recruited by every Ivy League college, actually got a letter from Harvard telling her that her target SAT score for admission was 1100! Another young man from our community, a highly recruited left-handed pitcher, was told that his admission target for Princeton was 1200, with an expected verbal score of 600 because “Princeton has a lot of reading.” Needless to say, both of those young people were White!

So much for “undeserving minorities” displacing White kids from top colleges! I have taught African American Studies at Fordham for more than 40 years and talked to hundreds of Black and Latino students about their college recruitment experiences. Not one of them mentioned being given SAT targets that low for admission to Harvard, Yale or Princeton!

Donald Trump needs to find a new subject for his demagoguery. If Barack Obama got into Columbia with lower grades and SATs scores than the college mean, he was only one of many students—the vast majority of whom were White—who fell into that category. His success, along with so many others, should remind us that traits measurable on standardized tests are not the only indicators of talent and potential that should be considered for university admission. When Ivy League schools admit students, irrespective of the scores they register on standardized tests, they almost never drop out, and usually achieve professional success after graduation. Whether these schools should have as much power as they do in American society is another question, but none of the students they bring in are programmed to “fail.”

Columbia College wisely admitted Barack Obama. His admission was only one small part of a broad policy for creating a student body diverse in talent as well as cultural background from which far more Whites than ethnic and racial minorities were beneficiaries


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