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Who benefits from affirmative action in college admissions? Not who you think

Kirk Carapezza
Who benefits from affirmative action in college admissions? Not who you think
Kyra Tyler, former admissions official at Brandeis University. PHOTO: CHRIS KOHLEY FOR GBH NEWS

Kyra Tyler used to work as an admissions official at Brandeis University, a private college in Waltham with a long social justice streak, advocating behind closed doors for underrepresented students of color. After all, she had been hired in the early 2000s specifically to recruit them.

But if recruiting students was one challenge, admitting them was another.

“At the end of the process, we would look to see who we had [recruited] and typically it would be like, ‘Oh, Kyra, you need to take this particular student out,” Tyler recalled recently in an interview.

Brandeis University PHOTO: COURTESY BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY

One time, she said, her boss explicitly asked her to remove a young Black man from the pool of candidates in favor of a donor’s son, who was white and had worse grades and test scores. And it didn’t end there. She said the well-connected student also received a generous merit scholarship — a tuition discount — even though his family could easily afford to pay.

Watching the gaming and favoritism in college admissions and financial aid was “personally devastating” to Tyler.

“As a Black person, to see we were sort of the pawn and rarely won the prize, it was really upsetting,” she said.

She left that job just three years after she started.

College admissions can be an insider’s game that often favors white and upper-income students — and one need look no further than the Varsity Blues scandal for evidence of the extreme lengths rich parents are willing to go to guarantee coveted admissions slots. With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to ban any consideration of race in college admissions, there could soon be even fewer opportunities for students of color to win access or financial aid.

Steven Burd, a researcher at New America, a nonprofit focused on public policy, called the potential ban on race considerations “affirmative action for the rich.”

“A lot of people believe that college admissions and financial aid is rigged to benefit low-income students and minority students. In fact, the opposite is true,” Burd said. “The advantaged have almost all of the advantages in college admissions, and increasingly in college financial aid.”

Burd said that’s what his team’s new research found. They examined 575 selective public and private colleges, including Brandeis, and found that between 1999 and 2020, those institutions collectively spent more than $101 billion of their own financial aid dollars to attract students who lacked dire financial need.

The research found that overall, 1 in 4 financial aid dollars spent by colleges went to relatively more affluent students. That means instead of giving one student a full ride, four less-needy students received smaller financial aid grants. It’s a process that does not benefit young people with financial hardship, leaving those students or their families to fill the gaps with private loans charging higher interest rates.

“This is an absolutely terrible way to finance higher education for low-income families,” Burd said.

College admissions officers defended the process, saying they have to work within the scope of their budget. Brandeis Dean of Admissions Jennifer Walker said it’s not a secret that colleges favor students and families with the ability to pay more in tuition.

Admissions officials are “striving every year to be better and do better and be as diverse as you can within the constraints of your budget,” she said.

Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association of Admission Counseling agreed, saying colleges have to pay attention to whether or not a family can afford to pay tuition.

Perez said Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he used to work in admissions, would assess the budget only after making admissions decisions — which caused problems if the school was over budget.

“So we would have to start cutting students every single year based on which students could afford to pay or not. That process disproportionately impacts students of color,” he said.

Goodbye to admissions-financial aid firewall

Eileen O’Leary, former president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said once a college’s competitors start offering merit scholarships to entice students with means to come, it pressures other colleges to do the same.

In the late 1970s, Boston College led a small number of schools that started offering scholarships to students regardless of whether they had financial need. Physics professor Jack Maguire, who was in charge of admissions, argued that the Jesuit school would be wise to use its financial aid dollars strategically to “yield the best possible mix of students at a reasonable institutional expense, recognizing that we cannot meet full needs in most cases.”

Maguire first introduced the term “enrollment management,” saying colleges could “exert significant influence over [their] destiny” if they broke down the firewall between the admissions and financial aid offices.

O’Leary said a consulting industry grew up around what had formerly been a promise to ignore a family’s ability to pay in the admissions process. That opened the door at some colleges to offer admissions not solely based on merit, but a combination of merit and their own financial calculus.

The new financial aid model worked wonders at Boston College, boosting enrollment and helping to turn the Jesuit school into a national brand.

At the same time, such practices turned off administrators like O’Leary.

“I was ready to retire for probably 10 years before I retired,” she said. “I would say, ‘This isn’t the financial aid I signed up for.’”

From ‘need-blind’ to ‘need-aware’

That little-acknowledged change in college admissions policy had big implications. Brandeis Dean of Admissions Jennifer Walker said admissions at the university are not “need-blind.” Today they are “need-aware.”

“We try to enroll as diverse a class as possible without paying attention to need,” she explained. “There are generally a lot of students of all backgrounds still left in the pool who want to be in the class who we won’t have enough money to fund.”

The percentage of Black and Hispanic students admitted to Brandeis — 6% and 8%, respectively — mirrors other small private colleges in New England. By comparison, 20% of the college’s admission seats go to international students, who usually pay full tuition. New America’s Burd said the school’s demographics are in line with colleges like Northeastern and Boston University.

If the Supreme Court decides to restrict any consideration of race in college acceptance, an already unfair process could get even worse, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

The College Excellence Program has been helping low-income students gain admission to highly selective colleges since its founding 12 years ago. Wyner said advocacy groups for low-income students routinely urge private and public colleges to figure out a financial model that could double the number of students accepted with Pell Grants, the federal assistance offered to low-income students.

He pointed to progress at Amherst College in Western Massachusetts and Spellman College in Atlanta, two institutions with relatively large endowments, where more than 20% of the students have low incomes.

“We know it can be done,” Wyner said. “The question is a matter of will.”

Kirk Carapezza is the managing editor and correspondent for higher education at GBH News, 89.7.

affirmative action, Brandeis University, college admissions