Some Thoughts on Ivy League Admissions—and Affirmative Action—for Donald Trump

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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

Donald Trump’s recent comments that Barack Obama didn’t have the grades to get into Ivy League schools shows a 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 U.S. (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 their 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 twenty percent of the undergraduates are recruited athletes, and at Williams College, they constitute forty 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 SAT’s 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 of allegedly “undeserving” minorities who push hardworking white students out of top college—which Trump is exploiting with his rhetoric—turns out to be misplaced.  To put the matter bluntly, there are a lot 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 fifteen 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 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” pushing white kids out of top colleges!  To put this in perspective, I have taught African American Studies at Fordham for more than forty years and talked to hundreds of black and Latino students about their college recruitment experiences.  Not one of them has 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.  And his success, along with so many others so admitted, should be a warning 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 chose wisely in admitting 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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