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Weeds in the Ivy: college admissions under preference constraints

Dennis L. Weisman and Dong Li ()

Applied Economics, 2017, vol. 49, issue 3, 303-312

Abstract: In a series of cases spanning more than three decades, the courts have attempted to establish boundaries on the permissible use of racial preferences in college admissions. Proponents of these policies believe that race-based preferences are needed to create a diverse student body that facilitates effective learning and social inclusion. Opponents of such policies contend that racial preferences are inherently discriminatory and eliminating them would yield a more able student body. Whereas race-based preferences have garnered the most attention, elite colleges regularly employ other types of preferences, including those for alumni and talented athletes. To inform this important policy debate, we develop a simple model comprised of a rational college administrator that maximizes a linear combination of student body ability and the college endowment through the choice of race, legacy and merit admission shares. We find that relaxing the racial-preferences constraint can produce a ‘less-able’ student body even when the college administrator places greater weight on student body ability than she does on the college endowment. The change in admissions policy may serve only to increase the number of admissions that can be ‘sold’ to wealthy alumni through legacy preferences and thereby foster the growth of weeds in the Ivy.

Date: 2017
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DOI: 10.1080/00036846.2016.1197366

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