At the very first Harvard College commencement ceremony, nearly 400 years ago, markers of exclusivity were front and center. The graduating class consisted of just nine students: no women, no people of color; only, in the words of a Boston historian, “young men of good hope.” The order in which they received their degrees was determined “not according to age, or scholarship, or the alpheber [sic], but according to the rank their families held in society.”
The freshman class admitted to Harvard University last spring was much less homogenous. According to a survey conducted by the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, more than half of the accepted students were nonwhite; more than half were women; more than half would receive financial aid once enrolled. But vestiges of the same exclusivity remained. Legacy applicants, predominantly white and wealthy, were admitted at five times the rate of non-legacies. And white students with annual family earnings exceeding $250,000, legacy or not, constituted more than 15 percent of the admitted class—despite coming from an income bracket representing less than 5 percent of Americans of any race.
Those students have always enjoyed disproportionate access to elite colleges in the U.S. They were meant to. The parents charged in the college-admissions scandal this month risked criminal prosecution in order to gain an unfair advantage in a system that was built to offer them unfair advantages already. Even as selective institutions began, in the early 20th century, to admit a more diverse array of applicants, they adopted new policies in order to protect white, upper-class students from being entirely displaced. Neither affirmative action nor the diversity drive of recent years has eliminated those protections.