Opinion: We’re Finally Talking About Wealth and Legacy

Opinion: We’re Finally Talking About Wealth and Legacy (Photo courtesy Jang Lee)

Cambridge, MAWhen I first arrived at Harvard three and a half years ago, I was surprised by the sheer wealth of my peers and the unexpected number of legacy students I met. During the first week of my freshman year, my roommate bought a flat-screen TV for the common room and a $300 gaming chair. He barely used both. A friend from class casually mentioned to me that both of his parents had also attended Harvard. I later learned his older sister graduated five years ago and his twin brother was currently attending with him.

Harvard was a foreign world for me. As Korean immigrants settled in a Texas suburb, my parents had idolized the Ivy League as the ultimate realization of their American dream, so I learned to think the same. To achieve this dream, my parents labored at their small doughnut shop and during the summers, I followed my dad to his second job cleaning a local recreation center. I was lucky to have attended a well-resourced public high school folded within a middle-class suburb, and to be born into a stable-income family.

Regardless, for a college that touts its diversity, I was shocked that so many of my classmates came from rich, well-connected families and were part of a legacy in institutions like Harvard. Meeting peers whose parents were professors at elite colleges, doctors with Wikipedia pages, or leaders of multi-million dollar companies reminded me of my working-class roots.

Over the last few years, Harvard has been embroiled in a contentious affirmative action lawsuit which remains unsettled. The school has been under investigation for its alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants. Meanwhile, the clear advantages which favor wealthy students and white legacies remain unquestioned.

The recent college admissions scandal revealed the extent to which parents and prospective students will cheat the admissions system for entrance into an elite university. Thirty-three parents were charged after bribing their children into colleges like Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown.

From my time at Harvard, I was not surprised. Wealthy families have long manipulated college admissions in ways that are equally dubious but within the bounds of law. They pay exorbitant fees for college consultants, or have personal statements written by outside companies. It is not unimaginable to consider the ubiquity of these practices. After all, the median income of a Harvard student triples the national average, according to Harvard's student newspaper The Crimson.

This elitist, easily-rigged college admissions process produces a predominantly wealthy and white campus: 42% of white students from Harvard’s class of 2021 come from families making over $250,000 per year. Not to mention, applicants who benefit from Harvard's legacy preferences, which favor white and wealthy applicants, are five times more likely to get admitted compared to non-legacy students.

My black and brown peers fend off derisive comments accusing them that their acceptances into Harvard were contingent on their race, having stolen spots from more “qualified” applicants. Yet, they have time and again demonstrated excellence despite severely underfunded schools for black and Latinx students and other institutional barriers which have limited opportunities for people of color. White families, on the other hand, are literally buying their way into college and perpetuating the cesspool of white mediocrity at elite institutions. Truly, who is stealing spots away from “deserving” applicants?

Over the past year, I have struggled with the conversations sparked by the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard. A friend of the plaintiff, Michael Wang, has been outspoken about the discrimination he had felt as an Asian-American college applicant. While he now claims he does not want affirmative action abolished, Mr. Wang remains complicit in bolstering a toxic narrative which argues that a race-neutral admissions process is the only solution to achieving educational equity for Asian-Americans.

But I contend that affirmative action has not harmed me. When I applied to Harvard, I wrote a personal essay about my Korean heritage and its intersection with queerness. My identity as a Korean-American overlaps with all aspects of my life and it felt disingenuous to write solely about my sexuality. Affirmative action allowed me to present an application that felt true to my identities beyond just one facet, acknowledging the role my Korean identity played in my experiences.

For this exact reason, we need an admissions policy that can reckon with how race plays a role in all aspects of our lives and the opportunities laid out for us. Wealth and legacy created a system meant to exclude people of color and working-class and low-income families. The college scandal has made that clear. Affirmative action seeks to deconstruct this system into one that is more equitable.  

The Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit denies the sociopolitical, racial, and economic bonds that connect Asian-Americans with all communities of color. The lawsuit threatens to decrease educational gaps for black, Latinx, Native American and yes — even Asian-American — students.

Meanwhile, the real source of inequitable college admission processes has been bitterly exposed for a whole nation to behold, one that has been festering underneath a facade of meritocracy for decades.  In light of the attacks on affirmative action, surely the irony rings clear: wealthy parents are literally buying their children into college in both legal and illegal ways.

And yet, for all of their arguments about fairness and equity, Students for For Fair Admissions and other critics of affirmative action are strangely silent. Where is their anger now?

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