David Remnick: In 1935, the young John F. Kennedy sent his college essay to the admissions department at Harvard and here it is in full. "The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several, I feel that Harvard can give me a better background, and a better liberal education than any other university. I've always wanted to go there as I felt that it is not just another college, but it's a university with something definite to offer, then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a Harvard man is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain." That was it, that was the whole essay.
If ever there was an example of the presumptions of privilege to say nothing of weak writing, well, there it is. By the way, he wrote almost the exact same essay for his application to Princeton. Kennedy, of course, graduated from Harvard, as did his father, who was at that time, one of the richest men in the United States but maybe times are changing. Harvard is now the target of a lawsuit on legacy admissions, which, of course, favors the children of graduates, graduates who almost inevitably, are in the upper-income brackets. Congressional Democrats, and even some prominent Republicans as well as the Biden administration, have also come out against legacy admissions, suddenly, it's a big issue.
Speaker 1: Today, I'm directing the Department of Education to analyze what practices help build a more inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices hold that back. Practice like legacy admissions [unintelligible 00:01:49].
?Speaker 2: Jeff Merkley and Congressman Jamaal Bowman both Democrats, introduced a bill yesterday that would ban legacy admissions. Congressman Bowman argued all students deserve a fair shot at getting into college but he said [unintelligible 00:02:03]--
David Remnick: I'm joined now by Miguel Cardona, the Secretary of Education. Cardona began his career as an elementary school teacher, then a principal. He was the Commissioner of Education for the state of Connecticut, before his appointment to the cabinet. Mr. Secretary, legacy admissions had been around for an awfully long time, and why now? Why is this the moment for the Biden administration, of all administrations, to make a move on legacy admissions?
Miguel Cardona: Well, what we're doing is not necessarily making a move on legacy admissions, what we're doing is revisiting college admissions in general, under which legacy admissions is one of those. I think we have an opportunity as a country in light of what I think to be a very wrong decision by the Supreme Court ending affirmative action to reevaluate how we're communicating to our students, and their ability to find success in higher education.
We have to recommit to making sure we're opening more pathways to students, in particular, students who have historically been underrepresented. Even with affirmative action, we've had work to do to make sure that the diversity on our campus reflects the diversity of our country. I think it's the time now for leaders in higher education to really put their heads together and chase the ideal.
David Remnick: Admissions directors of places like Harvard and Yale and Princeton, and all those places have said they're going to be hurt very badly in their diversity efforts because of the end of affirmative action as dictated by the Supreme Court. Yes, you've launched an investigation of Harvard admissions, what do you expect to find? What do you expect to find as the present tense situation? How will it be affected by the Supreme Court decision? How will getting rid of legacy admissions affect the picture? What's the present tense and what's the ideal you're headed toward?
Miguel Cardona: There was a request for an investigation out of the Office for Civil Rights stating that legacy admissions was unfair. I can't speak specifically to an investigation, but to your earlier point, a lot of university presidents are lamenting the Supreme Court decision because it's going to make their job harder. Very soon, we're going to release the initial guidance that interprets, from our legal team here, what the Supreme Court is saying and what it's not saying. The last thing we need is extrapolation here or people to add on to the limitations that colleges can use to get admission into their schools.
The second thing we're going to do, which we actually did last week, is we're going to bring together the leaders from all parts of the country, to brainstorm together on best practices and lawful strategies that they can use to increase diversity. Then we're going to also publish that.
David Remnick: The head of admissions at Yale University is typical in pushing back against the effort to get rid of legacy admissions and he says, "The process for selecting students for admissions together with the process for selecting faculty and deciding what courses to offer defines a campus community and culture." What he's saying on the surface, at least, that we don't want our private university to be intruded on by the government. What's really behind this in your view? What is Yale trying to preserve by trying to fend off this effort against legacy admissions?
Miguel Cardona: Well, look, I very much respect university's ability to think independently. As I said earlier, I can't, in one decision or one edict, stop all legacy admissions, that's not how it works. We know that in California, when they pass a proposition blocking affirmative action, the enrollment of Black and brown students dropped, and they worked really hard to try to get those numbers up. What I can tell you is, by many college presidents themselves, they want to revisit legacy admissions because they say if race can be considered, then your last name shouldn't be the deciding factor either.
I think there's merit to that thinking but I also think we shouldn't stop there, we need to start thinking more broadly, about how we're making sure that pathway to higher education is more accessible. I've seen too many students in my experience as a K-12 administrator, too many students rule out college by 6th, 7th grade because they felt that the admission process and the cost of college was prohibitive.
David Remnick: Some Republicans, including Tim Scott, who's running for president, have agreed that legacy admissions are really a problem. Do you think the Republican Party, as a whole, is as serious about reform on this issue as the Biden administration and other Democrats in Congress?
Miguel Cardona: It's really difficult for me to get in the head of the folks who are running for office or what their motivations are. I can't speak to his rationale but what I can tell you is my experience as Secretary of Education, even on issues that are very bipartisan at the ground level, like career pathways, providing some support to those who are struggling to make ends meet, we've gotten nothing but opposition, we've gotten nothing but lawsuits, to the point where the hypocrisy is blatant.
We have folks who are blocking or complaining about their own constituents getting $10,000 in debt relief when they're struggling to get back on their feet after the pandemic, yet they're receiving and they're welcoming over a million dollars in debt relief themselves. I'd love to think that there are some issues that we can come together and really just focus on what our students need, what our families have been asking for. I'm hopeful, but I'm not optimistic given the track record of lawsuits.
David Remnick: I wonder if you think as I sometimes do, that we spend so much time thinking about college admissions as the crucial thing here, when in fact, maybe the problem is lower down in terms of age. I live in liberal New York City and it seems to me, it can be argued that in New York City, as liberal as it is, as liberal-minded as it opposes to be, may have one of the most segregated school systems in the country. I don't think that just goes from New York City. How does that end, that seems infinitely more complicated.
Miguel Cardona: This is an area of passion for me. Yesterday, I was on an airplane and I was talking to someone who's a local board member in a district. I want to mention the district because I didn't tell him I was going to be mentioning him on a national interview. [laughs] He was a local board member who was telling me that he was having a hard time in his district because the local zoning ordinances prevented mixed-income housing. That was their way of making sure that only folks that had an income of a certain amount came into those communities.
Schools are segregated because communities are segregated. Schools are only a reflection of the community in which they're embedded. If you have, and I appreciate efforts to create diverse learning environments, K-12, but oftentimes, what ends up happening is we put Black and brown kids on buses for 45 minutes, bring them into another community where they don't live in that community, they don't have after-school programs in those communities, that that's not their home.
They're not playing in the parks with those kids in those neighborhoods because they got to get back on a bus and go back to the community. We're creating diverse learning environments artificially through our schools instead of having diverse communities.
David Remnick: Let me ask if you think that the decline and influence of the SAT is a good thing or a bad thing in this effort to try to level the playing field?
Miguel Cardona: If everyone had the same access to SAT coaches and everyone had access to the same coursework that led up to preparation for the SATs, it would be easier for me to answer that.
David Remnick: I think we can agree that it's going to be impossible-
Miguel Cardona: Exactly. The point is--
David Remnick: -to legislate a complete equality in America.
Miguel Cardona: My point that I was going to get to was, there are some inherent bias in those data. Now, it's good to have an understanding of what the students have mastered or what their functioning is, but that's more a product of the ability for the districts that they came from to prepare them. We're dealing with students who have had substitute teachers for majority of their experience because of underfunding, and K-12 education, don't hinge everything on the SATs. There has to be support at the K-12 level, and that's what we're fighting for with our raise-the-bar plan.
We're pushing for literacy and numeracy. We're pushing for better pathways to higher education for our students. We need to raise the bar, not lower expectations, but also college completion. I just said last week, we announced $45 million for college completion grants to help those students get the academic support that they need to finish college. Because we know college graduates will earn, on average, a million dollars more than students who just graduate high school. That's our goal, to open up higher education to more students.
David Remnick: I know that you're devoted to increasing diversity around the country. Texas has a system of accepting the top 10% of seniors from every high school to the University of Texas. Do you think something like that would yield a more diverse pool in other universities around the country?
Miguel Cardona: Yes. I think that's a great way of keeping your higher-performing students from high school in your state. It makes a lot of sense. On the flip side, I'll also say we have to be cautious because not all high schools are built the same, not all K-12 systems are built the same. As a matter of fact, the achievement disparities that we have in schools that serve predominantly Black and brown students is glaring. Sadly, as a country, we've normalized that. We've normalized the fact that Black and brown students, on average for the last 25 years, have been performing 30 points less.
Does that mean that we're, again, perpetuating an inequity that unless we have our K-12 systems producing outcomes that are equivalent, we should be careful not to discount students who are underperforming or students who are not getting the interventions or supports that they need and maybe are not as high performing, not because they don't have the capacity, but because the school system doesn't have the support to provide them?
David Remnick: Mr. Secretary, there's no perfect analogy with any other country, but when you look around the world and the educational and social systems that are available to study for comparison, who gets it more right than this country?
Miguel Cardona: I recently had an international conference of education ministers from all over the world. Some of the conversations is they look at education as an investment in their country. What does that translate to? Investing in a highly qualified workforce, whether that's educators, leaders. They invest in their development. The stronger the workforce is, the better product you can provide the students.
David Remnick: In other words, you're talking about teacher salaries.
Miguel Cardona: Professor salaries, teacher salaries. If we've normalized, in this country, that teachers drive Uber on the weekends to make ends meet, we've failed [unintelligible 00:14:19].
David Remnick: Is that the reason our test scores are sinking?
Miguel Cardona: Look, all the research says if you have a highly qualified teacher in the classroom, that's the biggest influence within the building that you could have on student achievement second only to parents. When you invest in your educators, when you focus on hands-on learning where students are learning by doing, and when you make connections to higher education where you're not in a lifetime of debt, that's how you lift education and that's how you lift the country, not everything requires a four-year degree.
If we invest in career and technical education and pathways to some of these careers that are coming that are, you'll start off making $85, $90,000 a year without a four-year degree, and then you can continue to go on to your education and now have a salary that helps pay for it, not only will we fill those positions that are going to become available, millions, with the work in the last two and a half years with the Biden-Harris team. That's what we're working on, fixing a broken system and helping students graduate with options.
David Remnick: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much.
Miguel Cardona: Good talking to you.
David Remnick: Take care.
David Remnick: Miguel Cardona is the US Secretary of Education.
David Remnick: We're talking today about higher education, specifically, who gets into selective colleges and how they get in.
David Remnick: Since the Supreme Court banned the consideration of race and admissions in June, a few schools voluntarily stopped considering another factor, legacy status. That is some form of preference given to children of alumni or employees. One of the first to end legacy admissions in selecting its next class was Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut. The Dean of admissions there is Amin Abdul-Malik-Gonzalez.
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: I'm an alum. I'm a person of color. I came to West End as a first-generation low-income student and have actually four children, two of whom are two college or through college already, one in college, and two more to go. This is obviously very close to home for me, both personally and professionally. I fully support it because I want for my children and for others to have complete ownership of their experience to know that they're there because they deserve to be there, not simply through association.
David Remnick: Admissions officers like Gonzalez, who have to select the next group of students under very different circumstances, now have a complicated problem on their hands. Gonzalez talked the other day with The New Yorker's Jeannie Suk Gersen, a law professor at Harvard, who's reported on the admissions process.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: What about the purported benefits of legacy admissions? I think schools have talked about the way that a multigenerational representation in a student body could add to a sense of community and loyalty to the institution, and then it could translate into financial donations and investment in the institution. Is there any nervousness that you might have, or the school might have about that aspect eroding?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: Yes. So far, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. I know President Roth is confident that he'll be able to raise money on the strength of our living our values and being consistent. We're obviously some time removed away from the results of the decision in that way.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: Are you of the view that legacy admissions did have a disparate racial impact at Wesleyan or elsewhere?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: I think it'd be hard to argue that it didn't, just given demographics you're talking about, in some cases, centuries of access and opportunity for White Americans who had access to selective admission and not much more than the last 50 years or so in some places like Wesleyan and a couple of others that were very intentional about diversifying their student bodies.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: Legacy admissions, as you said, is one factor among many that would have previously been considered. Now, you've got the Supreme Court saying you can't use race as a factor. Is legacy admissions and putting an end to that part of a solution that you envision for bringing more diversity than might be possible after the Supreme Court's decision? Is it one step in a multitude of moves that you might be considering?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: Yes, absolutely. It's both symbolic and potentially substantive in terms of signaling our value to not have individually unearned benefits, not the parents, but the students themselves, simply through association, who most certainly still have a number of alumni children legacies in the class, but it won't be, as I said earlier, as if we have any set-aside spaces or automatic benefits or quotas assigned to them.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: What else are you planning to do other than end legacy admissions in order to address the fact that race can no longer be used as a factor in admission?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: Sure. We're not more than just about a month removed from the decision, we've been anticipating this reality or possibility for some time. We gathered a task force, made sure to discuss and share with our community, share with faculty, staff, students, have communications in place to be prepared to signal, and then also to back up our messaging with clear concrete evidence of our commitment, and now we're going to scaffold out the other things that President Roth announced in that statement; outreach to community-based organizations, transfer to veterans, our international commitment to the African Scholars Program. All of those things were material signals and commitments, that we're going to continue to work toward this year and beyond.
Amin Abul-Malik Gonzalez: For us, it's never been reduced to race and ethnicity, it's been political thought, background, faith, intellectual, all dimensions. We'll continue to recruit in those ways, and they give us the best opportunity to build the classes and the community that we're committed to.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: Recruitment of minority students is one method that you're emphasizing, is there anything else within the admissions process that can be done to increase the representation of underrepresented students?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: Sure, and this issue has gained quite a bit of attention as you're likely aware. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, there were announcements of supplemental essays and ways in which offices and admission institutions were going to try to suss out important information that would allow them to select diverse groups. We have not had a supplement as part of our process for several years and decided deliberately not to introduce another supplemental essay.
Because we feel that within the realm of the three applications that we consider, there are essay topics that give students the ability to tell their story in their own words and to highlight the kinds of things that the court allowed for; skills, talents, characteristics consistent with mission, so we didn't need to create yet another, not barrier but create another expectation, if you will, that if you multiply that by the number of schools students are applying to, that can be a potential barrier.
If I'm applying to 10 institutions, and each of them have their own supplement, that is going to be time-consuming, it's going to require thought and some bandwidth. We made the decision not to do that. We're thinking along other lines about messaging and engagement, and we'll have to see how teachers and counselors understood and understand the decision, and how they follow up with the recommendations that they write, and how they advocate for and support students in the process. That's going to be important.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: You talked about different types of messaging. Can you give some examples of the kind of messaging?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: Sure. To begin with, it's the idea that we value while we cannot consider race, in selection, we value racial and ethnic diversity, and we should not have to compromise on that value. One of the concerns in the immediacy of the aftermath was that institutions would pull back, would retreat out of fear of litigation, or other concerns and compromise on their own values and say, "We're going to go race-neutral across all dimensions."
Rather than stand up and say, "We recognize that there are educational inequities, and some of those are tied to race and experience, and we can create space and opportunity for students in ways that comply with the law, but that are also consistent with our values."
Jeannie Suk Gersen: Speaking of complying with the law, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, some people, including a lot of Conservatives, were saying the Chief Justice Robert's paragraph about how you can consider essays and experience just created a giant loophole in which admissions officers will continue to just do what they were doing, and just do it in the form of reading people's essays and just consider race that way. What do you think about that?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: It's an interesting question, in part, because what it relies upon is the assumption, I would say, that all students are going to choose to share this particular element of their identity. You can consider race if it comes in the essay if that's something that a student chooses to share. We don't want students to be forced into corners where they feel they have to write about their racial identity, that is central to their existence, of course, a part of their reality.
If a student wants to write about their passion for computer science, or for dance, or for something else, for family, they should not feel that the only way to have that element of their diverse background registered is to be reduced to a single part of the application.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: From the advantage point of an admissions officer, do you think there is a real difference between looking at an essay and just gleaning from it, "This person is a member of an underrepresented racial minority like this person is Asian, this person is Black," versus looking at an essay and saying, "This person has had an experience of being Black, that shows certain characteristics like resilience, and persistence, and things like that," do you think there's a real difference between those two things?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: I think there are differences across all kinds of dimensions because admission is more art than science. What I was alluding to earlier was the fact that while status could be recognized in terms of a student's background with Asian American, Caucasian, African American, yes, that affiliation or status would be recognized. The understanding of that student's background experience and potential is framed through their environment, through their secondary school experience, their personal circumstances, their background. It's not simply based on that affiliation alone, that checks the box and gets, and tips the scale in that way.
A student who's not otherwise qualified wouldn't be admitted simply because they check the box. Understanding that there might be things that impact access, opportunities, things of that sort that are related to their race, ethnicity, and community those things are contextual considerations that we take pains to try to make sure that we better understand and can appropriately consider students in those environments.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: Are there any other universities or colleges or institutions that you consider to be models or schools that had gotten it right, somehow, or any institutions that you've learned from in redesigning your admissions process in response to the Supreme Court's ruling?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: I would say it's a great question, but not an easy one to answer, in part, because this is confined to selection. The ruling was confined to selection, and there are very clear concerns around collusion. No one is sharing or committed to the idea that we would provide a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone to adopt. I will say that holistic admission is something that many selective environments have done for many years, and there are best practices in that space that are not in the space of collusion.
As I said earlier, the triangulation of the required components of the application, a commitment to individualized review, those are things that we do talk about very openly and candidly because they're not institution specific. In terms of who has done this particularly well, to be quite honest, I don't know that anyone is at a point where they can say that they have the secret sauce.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: In states such as California that previously got rid of race-conscious affirmative action, we have seen the results, and people haven't been super inspired by those results in terms of diversity. People are fearing that we're going to see something similar at all the other schools now in the different states. How optimistic or pessimistic should we be?
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: I don't think that we can or should expect better results when we've introduced more variables and barriers. I'm not a pessimist, but I'm a realist. I know that previous experiences in other states that have banned affirmative action, as you alluded to, have not been positive. Why would we think now that we're going to achieve or even match or maintain the kind of diversity that we had prior unless we make very concerted efforts, which we're committed to doing, but we won't again know because it's speculative.
The landscape has shifted dramatically in higher education over the last four to five years, in part, because of the pandemic. Also, because of adoptions of test-optional policies, because of student behavior, applicant pools, in some cases, have not doubled but have gone up dramatically. Based on what we know now, I'm not expecting that we're going to be at the same place. I'm expecting that we're going to commit, and make every effort and certainly hope that we reach our goals, but it's going to be a tall order for a lot of us.
Jeannie Suk Gersen: Amin, Thank you.
Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez: Jeannie, it was a pleasure. Thank you.
David Remnick: Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez is vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Wesleyan University. Jeannie Suk Gersen just published an essay called The End of Legacy Admissions Could Transform College Access, and you can read that at newyorker.com.
[00:29:50] [END OF AUDIO]
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