One of the byproducts of writing a weekly column is that I’m always on the lookout for topics to write about or new angles to cover. I selfishly contend that this makes me more effective in my day job as an academic advisor, but I also know that I face the temptation to look at every news story and every conversation through the lens of a possible column article.

Apparently, this is also true for scholars. One of the expert dueling witnesses in last year’s court case over Harvard University’s treatment of Asian American applicants, Students For Fair Admission v. Harvard, was Peter Arcidiacono, professor of economics at Duke University.

Arcidiacono, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, and two other economics professors, Josh Kinsler of the University of Georgia and Tyler Ransom of the University of Oklahoma, collaborated on two working papers for the National Bureau of Economic Research, both based on data Arcidiacono reviewed and analyzed for the Harvard case. Duke’s economist’s ability to turn his audience work into two scholarly papers is not only an example of social science research at its best, but also pays homage to the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George present their idea of ​​a show for nothing to the executives of NBC. Line up in a Chinese restaurant? “It’s a show.” Testify in court? It’s a paper.

The Harvard case provided a never-before-seen public glimpse into how the selective college admissions process works. Harvard attorneys have attempted to argue that details about institutional policies and procedures should be kept away from the public on the grounds that they are proprietary. This argument appears to be akin to claims of executive privilege and national security as justifications for state secrets. The danger is not that the disclosure of information is harmful but rather embarrassing.

The first of the articles produced by Arcidiacono et al. examines the preferences granted to inheritances and athletes by Harvard. Their research shows that 43% of whites admitted to Harvard are “ALDCs,” a designation that includes athletes, heirlooms, the “dean’s list” (donors) and children of faculty members.

Those who fall under the ALDC designation are “disproportionately white and come from high-income households.” The paper finds that PMA applicants (those other than athletes) are on average stronger than non-ALDC applicants, but the average PMA admits is weaker than the average non-ALDC admits, and therefore draws the conclusion that ‘There is an advantage to the admissions process for applicants from this group.

Arcidiacono and his co-authors conclude that only 25 percent of white applicants admitted to ALDC groups would have been admitted without the benefit of belonging to this category. Their analysis suggests that a 10 percent chance of admission increases to 50 percent for an inheritance, 70 percent for children of donors on the Dean’s List, and a “virtual certainty” of admission as an inheritance. recruited athlete.

Information on the role of athletics in Arcidiacono’s article prompted Derek Thompson to write an article for Atlantic with the title “Worship of Sports for Rich Children”. Thompson argued that Harvard’s Division I non-scholarship sports program “works as affirmative action for white wealth.”

Harvard offers more college sports (42) than any other Division I program. The need to recruit able-bodied athletes becomes a priority in the admissions process, and according to Thompson, Harvard’s student body contains more students. athletes than that of Ohio State. The Arcidiacono article revealed that in the six admission cycles between 2014 and 2019, recruited athletes represented more than 10% of those admitted while they represented less than 1% of the applicant pool. Research indicates that recruited athletes have an admission rate of 86 percent, which appears to be a better chance than the overall rate of 5 percent. By far the best “hook” of admission is being a recruited athlete.

The natural presumption would be that the athletic program is a driving force in bringing racial and socio-economic diversity to Harvard, but the Thompson article argues that’s not the case. He describes a number of sports offered by Harvard, such as squash, crew, water polo and lacrosse, as “real sports for rich kids”, and cites data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association from 2017. -18 that less than 30 of the Ivy Leaguers in crew and lacrosse were black. Arcidiacono’s research cites a Harvard Crimson survey estimating that a quarter of the athletes recruited in the 2019 class came from families earning more than $ 500,000 per year. This is not as high as inheritances (40.7%) but significantly higher than the student body as a whole (15.4%). The working paper reveals that just over 3% of admitted white athletes come from an economic disadvantage.

But is all of this shocking to anyone in higher education? And is Harvard doing something different than many other highly selective institutions in using the admissions process to achieve a variety of institutional goals? I’m sure there are researchers who would dispute the analysis of the data by Arcidiacono and his colleagues, as David Card of the University of California at Berkeley did in the trial itself, but have the data available. publicly to analyze and debate is a good thing for those of us who believe that transparency should be a guiding principle for college admission.

The bigger question is whether the outsized preferences accorded to ALDCs and other admission groups are particularly onerous in a place like Harvard. Selective admission is a zero-sum game, with good news for one candidate removing an opportunity for another. When an institution admits only one in 20 applicants, it is forced to make fine distinctions between applicants, all of whom are superbly qualified, and the consequences of setting aside large segments of the student body for special interests. are larger for applicants and for the institution. I suspect that the Harvard affair will lead to a larger discussion about preferences of all kinds when it comes to college admission. It’s a worthwhile discussion.

Arcidiacono, Kinsler and Ransom’s second working paper raises more interesting philosophical questions. I will address them in a future column, perhaps as early as next week.