Discrimination in University Admissions

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University is a dream for many young children, because at a young age everyone is told that without an education it may be more difficult to earn a lot of money. Students should be enrolling into school due to their experience and grades, but that is not the reality. Many schools are known to discriminate against students purely based on age, gender, and even wealth status. Stories have emerged of top list celebrities paying their children into elite universities.

According to the Civil Rights Act from 1964 public schools are prohibited to make admission decisions based on race, colour, and origin, but private schools do not have to adhere to such rules [1]. This is a Canadian law which Canadian schools adhere by, which could be a reason why there are not as many scandals about university admissions in Canada. America does not have official laws which are concrete.

How Much do Universities Discriminate?

In recent years Harvard was under fire for discriminating against student's SAT scores based on their race. The asian applicants had higher SAT scores than the other races, which is why Harvard wanted to implement a 'Asian tax' on someone's SAT score. [2] On average Asian students needed to score at least 250 points higher to receive a recruitment letter [3]. Many criticize Harvard's admission process, they do look at things such as extra collicular such as sports and volunteering, but they also take into account a family's wealth and if they were an alumni [2]. This is would be unfair for a student who is from a poor family but has excellent grades and extra collicular, as they are viewed similarly with a wealthy student with alumni parents with average grades. The poor student has worked hard for the grades but her parent's low economic status may hinder her acceptance into Harvard, which is discrimination.

In the article a paper from Peter Acidiacono, an economist from Duke University is quoted as "He estimates that a male, non-poor Asian-American applicant with the qualifications to have a 25% chance of admission to Harvard would have a 36% chance if he were white. If he were Hispanic, that would be 77%; if black, it would rise to 95%" [2]. And if you are relatives with an alumni you are 5 times more likely to receive an admission [2]. A similar study was also done by Harvard with similar results, but when asked the school replies that the reports are incomplete and are oversimplifying the admission process [2].

Why do Universities Discriminate?

There are pros and cons for a school to discriminate, most schools can be seen as a business and if they only accepted students based on academics they would not be able to afford the lavish image they have. [4] This particularly applies to Ivy League schools, looking at schools from a economic perspective, it is the most efficient for a school and to select the optimal amount and type of students so that they can maximize their profits or objectives [4]. Some universities strive to be the best division in sports, and when looking through the applications they will give favour to those who are more likely to succeed in sports compared to academics [4]. In the article the last sentence reads "not all preferences in college admissions are created equal" [4], which is completely true. Every company and institution will make decisions which benefits them the most, they would not make decisions solely based on society. But, this should not be the case.

As mentioned above, relatives of alumni are given preferences at most elite schools, the reason as to why is because the schools actively try to keep the community of alumni connected. [5] In addition, most alumni from elite schools are wealthy and hold positions of power around the world, so the school gives their relatives an incentive to come to the school which will make the school even more honourable [5].

The financial benefits the university receive is also a big part of why discrimination is still so prevalent in so many schools. [6] The benefits of these briberies are the schools and the elite personalities that can afford their way into universities, and the ones that suffer most are the hardworking students who hope to get into prestigious schools through their own merit [6]. In an article written by the chronicles of higher education, it goes over the 8 main American universities who have been caught in taking bribes.[7] From court documents and proof it is estimated that around $5.9 million dollars was paid to these universities to receive the admission of 45 students, all children of prestigious personalities [7]. But, it is very hard to calculate the amount of money each person spent to get admission, as some transactions did not have any paper trails, so they were paid directly in cash [7]. Nonetheless, universities are benefiting by rigging the admission process, which is highly discriminatory for the students who are trying to earn a seat through their hard work.


Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem as universities can be considered private institutions especially in the US. A legal solution would be for the American government to put through stricter policies like Canada, and have the punishment for discrimination to be harsher. In addition, there should be a company or institution who is charge of making sure that the minimum amount of discrimination is taking place during the admission process to elite schools such as Harvard.

Slowly, we are solving the problem. Media coverage of big bribery scandals have gone viral in the past years, and the media has been putting pressure on the schools to amend their ways. This may not completely stop the discrimination which some schools still partake in, but it makes the schools aware that they are being looked at carefully. This may cause the schools to ditch their old discriminatory practices, and come up with better solutions which will both benefit them and society and will be fair to students no matter their race, gender, or financial status.


  1. Swartz, Molly E.(2010). "Discrimination in School Admissions". University of Pennsylvania. 13(1) page 229-234. https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/upjcl13&i=233
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 The Economist.(2018) 'Affirmative Dissatisfaction. https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/06/23/a-lawsuit-reveals-how-peculiar-harvards-definition-of-merit-is
  3. Eustachewich, Lia. (2018).Harvard’s gatekeeper reveals SAT cutoff scores based on race. https://nypost.com/2018/10/17/harvards-gatekeeper-reveals-sat-cutoff-scores-based-on-race/
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Weisman, Dennis. (2019).What Constitutes 'Discrimination' in College Admissions?. https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/regulation/2019/6/reg-v42n2-1.pdf
  5. 5.0 5.1 Espenshade, Thomas & Chung, CY & Walling, Jill. (2004).“Admission Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities. 85(5): page 1422–1446
  6. 6.0 6.1 Golden, Daniel. (2006)The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. Crown Publishers.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Brown, Sarah. 8 Universities. Millions in Bribes. 10 Corrupt Coaches. What You Need to Know About the Admissions-Bribery Scandal. Chronicles of Higher Educaion.https://www.chronicle.com/article/8-Universities-Millions-in/245873