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How affirmative action helps the rich

It is another way for privileged students to get a leg up, including in higher ed.

Actress Lori Loughlin, right, with her daughter Olivia

Actress Lori Loughlin, right, with her daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, at the 2019 "An Unforgettable Evening" in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Feb. 28. Photo Credit: AP / Invision / Chris Pizzello

By now, you’ve read about how very rich people allegedly faked their children’s test scores and athletic prowess to get them into elite colleges. But here’s what you might have missed: In some cases, the parents apparently falsified their kids’ ethnicities, too.

Affirmative action, like sports, has become another way for privileged Americans to get a leg up. Of course, our colleges should give a boost to disadvantaged applicants. But affirmative action mostly benefits well-to-do kids, just as every other aspect of the college admissions system does.

In a recent lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-American applicants at Harvard, for example, the university’s own analysis showed that 71 percent of African-American and Latino students there came from wealthy backgrounds. And the admissions preference for black applicants was almost twice as large as the boost for students from families making $60,000 a year or less.

I don’t see how we can justify that. And here I heartily agree with former President Barack Obama, who has said his daughters shouldn’t receive the same affirmative-action boost that he did; he was raised by a single mom who often struggled, while they grew up in steady comfort and affluence.

“We have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more,” Obama told a group of minority journalists in 2008.

But that’s precisely the system we have now, as the Harvard case confirmed. So we shouldn’t be surprised that people game affirmative action, too, by reporting the race or ethnicity that will benefit them the most.

On the website College Confidential, where students compare notes about their experiences, a student who identified as black, Latina and Pacific Islander confessed that she had reported herself simply as African-American. “Of course it’s unfair,” she wrote in 2011. “But people will do anything to get that little extra advantage in admissions.”

That’s almost a perfect description for the current scandal, which revealed just how much certain parents will do, and just how low they will sink, to get that extra advantage. They paid large sums to a well-connected college admissions adviser, who in some cases faked their kids’ ethnicities. He also bribed test administrators — to bring up the children’s scores, of course — as well as college coaches, who falsely said they were recruiting these students.

That’s because athletes get the biggest admissions preference. According to a 2002 study of 30 selective colleges, athletes received a 48 percent boost, as compared with 18 percent for minorities.

And guess what? Most of the recruited athletes are wealthy — and white. They participate in sports such as sailing and water polo, which require the kind of training and facilities that poorer students usually can’t afford. Not surprisingly, coaches from both of these sports were implicated in this week’s scandal.

I’ve got no problem with giving preference to athletes who come from disadvantaged circumstances. But most of them don’t. Outside of sports such as football and basketball, the athletes are wealthy — just like most of the minorities who are admitted.

“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” said Boston’s U.S. attorney, Andrew Lelling, announcing charges against 50 people last week. But we already have such a system. Our elite colleges remain playgrounds of the rich, where people come from different racial backgrounds but mostly from the same ZIP codes.

And that might be the biggest scandal of all.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

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