School Admissions, Socioeconomic Status, and Affirmative Action

By Jay Willis

As reported by ABC News (video) and the Houston Chronicle, Texas physician Michael Bardwil has filed suit against his alma mater, Strake Jesuit College Prep (Houston), for denying admission to his son.  Bardwil claims that while meeting with school officials in 2006 to discuss his son’s eventual application, the school’s director of development assured him that a $100,000 donation would guarantee admission for his son.  Bardwil agreed to pledge $50,000, and had paid $40,000 of this amount as of this fall, when school officials rejected his son’s application based on his low admissions test scores.  Bardwil is seeking to recover his donation and attorney’s fees in court.

As Daniel Golden asserts in his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, both quid-pro-quo donations and legacy preferences are firmly engrained in the institution of competitive school admissions.  Golden argues that administrators often inappropriately consider anticipated financial support from wealthy parents or provide extra leniency to borderline legacy students, hoping to cultivate an intergenerational culture of donating to the family’s alma mater.  However, both tacit financial agreements and legacy preferences agreements like Dr. Bardwil’s run the risk of squeezing out qualified applicants from less wealthy families or those unconnected to the school.  And race is an important third variable; because alums of top-flight schools have historically been disproportionately white, these admissions advantages may compromise the diversity of the present-day student bodies.

There has been very little regulatory interest in the subject, however, as legislators generally defer to the expertise of school administrators in composing their incoming classes.  In 2003, the late Senator Ted Kennedy considered packaging an anti-legacy provision in the Higher Education Act in order to mitigate the effects of conservative attacks on affirmative action.  If courts and legislatures were going to eliminate minority preferences in higher education admissions, he argued, they should also do away with legacy preferences that disproportionately benefit wealthy white families.  However, the grounds for his proposal became largely moot after the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the rationale of affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollingerand Senator Kennedy eventually agreed to omit the provision from the education’s committee’s final version of the bill.

Dr. Bardwil is suing his alma mater on theories of common-law fraud and negligent misrepresentation, and an attorney interviewed by ABC News noted that she had not heard of a similar case before.  However, the story illustrates that though many often think of access to education as a meritocratic equalizer, there remains a robust relationship between money, status, and privilege in admissions to competitive schools.

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