Opinion: The one group with a huge advantage in college admissions

Opinion: The one group with a huge advantage in college admissions

Editor's Note

John MacIntosh was a squash and tennis player at Princeton University. He then went on to work in the private equity industry and nonprofit sector. These are the opinions of John MacIntosh. View

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Admissions policies for Harvard University are

once again being challenged

A group called

Lawyers for Civil Rights

Filed a

The US Department of Education claimed last week that children of wealthy donors, alumni and other people of color, who are said to be overwhelmingly White, get unfair 'legacy preferences' when it comes to admissions.

John MacIntosh - Courtesy John MacIntosh

The complaint was filed just a few days after the US Supreme Court


Harvard has lost a landmark affirmative action case that ended decades of affirmative actions at American colleges. It also ensures that the heated debate about who is admitted to America's elite schools will continue.

A Harvard

Speaker said

The school has stated that it will not comment on this lawsuit, and that "the university will decide how to preserve its essential values in accordance with the Court's recent precedent."

One Supreme Court Justice cited evidence that elite colleges and Universities can achieve diversity through other means.

Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that the evidence provided by Students for Fair Admissions showed 'that Harvard can almost replicate the current racial makeup of its student population without resorting race-based practices.' If it "eliminated tipping for children of donors and alumni, as well as faculty" and "provided socioeconomically-disadvantaged applicants only half of the tip they give recruited athletes... who are a much weaker group academically than other non-athletes."

Although Gorsuch mentions it specifically, athletic recruitment is not under scrutiny. This is surprising, since historically, recruited athletes have had an admission advantage.

Significantly greater

It is also a form of indirect legacy preference that is more widespread than any other. When elite schools look for ways to make admissions more fair, the first thing they should do is eliminate athletic recruitment.

Athletes make up a very small percentage of students in the most prestigious college athletic programs, mainly the large public schools that are broadcast on television for their football and basketball matches.

According to the US Department of Education, this number is usually between 2% and 3%.

The preference for recruited athletes only has a minimal effect on the number of admission slots.

At smaller schools that are less selective, athletic recruitment can be a very effective way to bring in students who otherwise would not attend the school, without taking away a large number of spots from other students.

Oversubscription is not a common occurrence


At highly selective private institutions, however, the recruitment of athletes can have a significant impact on the admissions process. These schools, which have undergraduate student populations of only a few thousands students, are able to afford to field a large number of sports teams. Harvard, for example, had 37 varsity sports teams in 2021 with 1,191 players, while the University of Michigan only had 27 teams and 886 athletes.

Data is a good indicator of what to do

The US Department of Education.

Athletes are a major part of elite colleges, such as the Ivy League or the New England Small College Athletic Conference (or NESCAC).

Average of 20%

According to the same US Department of Education statistics, the number of students is approximately the same as the total student population. At Harvard, recruited athletes enjoy a huge advantage over legacies and other groups.

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Analysis of the Various

David Card, a Nobel Prize-winning economist (whose submission was part of the Supreme Court's ruling) showed that athletes with less academic qualifications received a boost of 1,000 times.

From 0.07% up to 70%

It was also shown that Asian American applicants were most disadvantaged compared to White applicants when the criterion used to assess them was athletics. The study also revealed that Asian American applicants faced the greatest disadvantages compared to White applicants, when athletics was used as a criterion for assessing them. All of this raises questions about fairness and equality.

The athletic recruitment system is also a quota-based grouping that violates the spirit of Supreme Court decision. It argues that applicants should be evaluated on their individual merits, not as members of a particular group the institution wishes to have represented on campus.

Recruits do not compete for admission based on their own merits. They aren't even competing on the basis of their athletic achievements. They are competing to win the team championship.

Fixed number of recruitment slots

Which are the best?

de facto quota

Since they almost guarantee admission.

Bill Bowen, former president of Princeton University and author of the book "The Most Troublesome" argues that the situation is most troubling.

College Sports and Education Values

Elite institutions are engaged in a sporting arms race which has distracted them from their core educational mission.

When schools have attempted to discontinue or convert certain teams to clubs, alumni of those sports (often niche ones) have balked and in many instances the

Schools have been backed off

While the recruits themselves may not be children of alumni or their spouses, the existence of recruiting slots acts as a legacy preference to applicants who have the time, money and interest to play sports that are popular among alumni.

Harvard has argued rightly that to advance its mission - to educate citizens and citizen leaders in our society - it is necessary for a diverse student population. However, its leaders can't honestly believe this requires a successful squash, fencing, or ski team.

According to the Supreme Court, each admissions spot is important -- Ivy League schools are no exception.


Other highly selective private institutions, such as universities and colleges, should use this opportunity to stop the arms race in athletics by fielding teams made up of walk-ons -- people who are admitted to the institution and who happen to be interested in the sport they play.

The admissions process would continue to be influenced by athletic interest and achievements, but they would not be weighed more or less than other extracurricular activities such as playing violin or doing community service for which there is no de facto or explicit quota or recruitment slot. The few elite schools that offer athletic scholarship could use these funds to increase the diversity of their student body in a more equitable way.

This could be tested in sports like soccer and tennis where the rosters for both men and women could easily be filled by the regular admission pool of even the smallest school and where even competing against opponents who are vastly superior does not present a risk to bodily injury.

To maintain parity, recruits for other teams could be cut down to the bare minimum and distributed across teams or the athletic conference. The teams that did not have enough demand without recruiting unnaturally, such as niche sports like squash, sailing, or fencing, would be discontinued.

The Supreme Court's decision was a grave mistake. However, it could have a silver-lining. Elite private institutions tried to stop the arms race in athletics, but they failed. The High Court has now given them motivation and the opportunity to do so.

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