Pedestrians walk through the gates of Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

In January 2021, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear an appeal challenging Harvard’s use of racial preferences in college admissions, the institution’s president, Larry Bacow, sent a note to the university community positioning Harvard as a righteous champion of social justice. The Court, he wrote, was threatening Harvard’s ability “to create diverse campus communities that enrich education for all.”

Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us by Evan Mandery New Press, 369 pp.

But as the City University of New York professor Evan Mandery shows in his lively and trenchant new book, Poison Ivy, Harvard’s lofty pronouncements about racial inclusion elide an important part of the story: The school does not remotely reflect America’s class diversity. Unless the country were to magically transform itself to have 20 times as many rich people as poor people, as Harvard does, the school will remain a highly unrepresentative bastion of privilege.

Poison Ivy arrives at a time when elite college admission practices are under a microscope. The litigation in the Supreme Court over affirmative action unearthed a treasure trove of data revealing in vivid detail how a variety of university practices—from legacy preferences to the preferences for the children of faculty—tilt admissions toward the wealthy. Mandery takes full advantage of this new information as he considers how the Ivy League reproduces inequality by grooming wealthy kids for the sorts of careers that will make them still wealthier. 

Mandery presents his indictment with an appealing blend of storytelling and hard data. And he adroitly draws on his firsthand experiences with elite and less selective education. Mandery attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where he met unimaginably rich students and witnessed graduates line up to represent the interests of America’s wealthiest institutions. But for 20 years, he has been teaching a largely working-class population of students at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where 60 percent of graduates go to work for nonprofits or government. 

Mandery’s vantage point helps him detect when elite universities are blowing smoke. Harvard tries to obscure its lack of socioeconomic diversity, for example, by highlighting that it provides a free ride to any student from a family making less than $65,000 a year, which is, to be sure, a good thing. But Harvard’s story about generous financial aid, writes Mandery, is “as misleading as those television commercials from Shell and other energy giants that advertise their commitment to developing clean energy alternatives—not a lie, exactly, but fundamentally misleading.” Precious few students have the chance to take advantage of the offer: Just 3 percent of Harvard students come from the bottom 20 percent by income, while 15 percent come from the top 1 percent of earners. Mandery notes that at elite colleges, students from the top 1 percent by income have a 77 times greater chance of attending than those from the bottom economic quintile. “Their core business isn’t lifting poor kids out of poverty,” he writes. “It’s keeping rich kids rich.”

In recent years, elite universities have bragged about an uptick in the number of students they admit who are eligible for Pell Grants, the federal program to assist students from families of modest means. In 2021, Yale crowed that the Pell-eligible student population had increased 70 percent since 2014. But as Mandery shows, this too may be misleading. Some universities have cynically learned to make their numbers look good by cherry-picking students just below the Pell financial cutoff and excluding those slightly above it. According one study Mandery cites, “applicants just below the Pell line were ten times more likely to be admitted as students just above the line.” 

Harvard highlights that it provides a free ride to any student from a family making less than $65,000 a year. But precious few students have the chance to take advantage of the offer: Just 3 percent of Harvard students come from the bottom 20 percent by income. 

But what about Harvard’s use of racial preferences for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, which it is defending in the Supreme Court? Doesn’t that help the disadvantaged? Not exactly. The litigation (in which I served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs) revealed that 71 percent of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students at Harvard are from roughly the top socioeconomic fifth of each of those racial groups. While only 10 percent of Black Americans are first- or second-generation immigrants, Mandery notes, more than 40 percent of those at the Ivy League are, and they are much more likely to be the children of highly educated and wealthy parents than most Black Americans. 

Working-class Black students at elite colleges are shocked when they arrive on campus. At Amherst, Anthony Jack, a Black student who grew up poor, noted, “Even the students of color appeared to have parents who were investment bankers and consultants.” Another low-income Black student at Amherst, Edmund Kennedy, said he was stunned when COVID-19 hit the campus. “The other students are saying, ‘We’re going to go to our house in LA or we’re going to take our plane to Cabo until this blows over.’” The working-class students, meanwhile, were saying, “We can ask our cousin in Boise who’s got an extra basement or whatever.” Kennedy concluded that at Amherst, “The divide is between rich and poor. It’s the starkest divide I’ve ever seen in my life. Far more classist than racial.”

Worse, the use of racial preferences to benefit upper-middle-class students of color helps obscure a larger system of preferences for mostly wealthy white students. The most blatant of these preferences are those provided to the children of alumni, faculty, and staff. Each of these groups is disproportionately wealthy and white; an admissions regime that reflects the meritocracy and egalitarianism that Harvard claims to exalt would make these the very last applicants to receive a preference. But at Harvard, legacies receive a 40 percent boost in admissions. Overall, Mandery notes, 34 percent of Harvard legacies are admitted, compared with 5 percent of all applicants. The admissions rate for the children of faculty and staff is even higher, at 47 percent. Recruited athletes also receive a huge preference in admissions, and, contrary to what one might think watching college basketball or football, most of the athletes who benefit are white, Mandery writes. At elite colleges, precious spots are provided for students to play squash, to row crew, to fence or play lacrosse. (Some conservatives who oppose racial preferences incongruously support ancestry-based preferences for the children of alumni.) 

Insidiously, Mandery says, the catch-all term diversity (an important concept with respect to race and class) is now employed to justify the preferences afforded these wealthy white students. He writes, “On the diversity view, every person contributes to the university in their own way. Lacrosse players, legacies, and the children of faculty members are not symbols of a problem,” he continues. “Rather, their whiteness and affluence are contributions to the life of the college, and its academic discourse. Diversity sanitizes these advantages of birth and opportunity as cultural and intellectual contributions.” In a deposition in the affirmative action litigation, for example, Harvard’s dean, Rakesh Khurana, provided a particularly strained justification for legacy preferences when he suggested that it was important for Harvard to favor the children of alumni in order to bring students who “have more experience with Harvard” together with “others who are less familiar with Harvard.” The ability of these different groups to “exchange perspectives, points of view,” he claimed, would make “them more effective citizens and citizen leaders for society.”

Mandery’s indictment of elite colleges goes beyond their exclusion of low-income and working-class students. He also offers a searing critique of how universities shape the career goals of students once they arrive on campus. “It would be one thing if elite colleges turned affluent high school graduates into do-gooders,” Mandery says. “They do the opposite.” At Harvard, more than 70 percent of seniors apply to work at investment banks or consulting firms and just 4 percent go into public service or nonprofit work. Harvard used to produce doctors and lawyers, Mandery writes. “Not anymore. Only 4 percent of 2020 Harvard grads went into the health industry and only 3 percent into law.” 

Citing the work of the UC San Diego sociologist Amy Binder, Mandery notes that students generally begin at elite colleges motivated by idealism, but they lack a sense of direction, which investment banks and consulting firms exploit. These firms wine and dine students, who are not readily shown an alternative by their universities. The firms also prey on the competitive instinct of students at selective colleges. “They set up the recruiting process so that landing a job on Wall Street becomes the next big game to win,” Mandery writes. 

Why does the Ivy League operate this way? Colleges fundamentally compete over prestige, and that’s connected in part to the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Giving a break to low-income students hurts prestige in two ways, Mandery writes. Because low-income and working-class students haven’t enjoyed the educational advantages that wealthier students have, average SAT scores and GPAs will be lower if a college admits impressive low-income students who have overcome odds but haven’t had a chance to take SAT prep classes to boost their scores. And because students of modest means require financial aid, they take away from other investments that can boost a college’s rankings, like high faculty salaries and bigger libraries. (By contrast, the Washington Monthly’s guide to colleges rewards those institutions that promote social mobility, public service, and research.)

College leaders can try to push back against all the interests aligned against low-income students. Vanderbilt, for example, created the Opportunity Vanderbilt program to increase financial aid and the Zeppos Scholars program for students committed to public service. Under the leadership of president Cappy Hill, between 2006 and 2015 Vassar doubled its financial aid budget with the goal of admitting more low-income students—and did so despite knowing that “any dollar spent on need-based financial aid receives little credit in the U.S. News rankings,” as Hill told Mandery. As a result, the percentage of low-income students more than doubled. And at Bates, president Clayton Spencer opened the Center for Purposeful Work in 2014 to help students find meaningful careers. “I think of work as a very deep thing,” she told Mandery. “What you do needs to align with who you are.” At Bates, 30 percent of the graduating class enters the education or health care fields, compared to a 6 percent share at Harvard.

But there is only so much committed leaders can do without outside pressure. As Vanderbilt’s Nick Zeppos told Mandery, “When you’re president, you’ve got a limited number of bullets to shoot.” Federal legislation could push universities in the right direction, and Mandery mentions the unlikely duo of Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and Vermont Democrat Peter Welch, who would like wealthy institutions to do more for low-income students. But the higher education lobby has kept most of those efforts in check thus far.

I believe that the most likely source to push universities to diversify by economic status is an unlikely one: our historically conservative Supreme Court. A decision curtailing the ability of universities to use race to recruit upper-income minority students, expected by June 2023, could inadvertently compel university admissions to focus on class disadvantage as a way of indirectly promoting racial diversity. 

The most likely source to push universities to diversify by economic status is our historically conservative Supreme Court. A decision curtailing the ability of universities to use race to recruit upper-income minority students could inadvertently compel university admissions to focus on class disadvantage as a way of indirectly promoting racial diversity. 

That is what has happened in almost all of the nine states where racial preferences have been banned, usually by voter initiative. In California, for example, when voters outlawed racial preferences in college admissions and public contracting in 1996, the University of California system took a number of progressive steps to boost racial diversity indirectly—increasing the preference to economically disadvantaged students of all races, boosting financial aid packages, ending legacy preferences for the children of alumni, and making it easier for talented community college students to transfer to the UC system. Initially, UCLA and UC Berkeley saw declines in Black and Hispanic admissions, but in recent years, the race-neutral efforts have worked: In 2020 and 2021, the freshman classes at the two schools were the most ethnically diverse in decades. Both universities are also far more socioeconomically diverse than most other elite institutions.

Another encouraging example is the University of Texas at Austin. In the 1990s, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals barred public colleges in its jurisdiction from using race in its selection process. Republican and Democratic state legislators came together to create a policy to provide a boost to socioeconomically disadvantaged students and to admit the top 10 percent of students from every high school. The policy produced higher levels of Black and Hispanic representation than racial preferences previously had. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently gave universities the green light to use race, so Texas adopted a system in which 75 percent of students are admitted through the top 10 percent plan, and 25 percent through discretionary admissions that can include race as a factor. Mandery notes that the portion of the class admitted through the 10 percent plan has tripled the proportion of students from families earning less than $40,000, as the group admitted through discretionary admissions. 

While a place like Harvard can’t admit a national pool of applicants the same way, Mandery suggests, it could cast a wider net than it does now. He asks, “What if Harvard forsook its unspoken agreements with prep schools and instead said it was going to advantage high schools that reflected the diversity of their surrounding community?”

The evidence suggests that elite institutions will do what it takes to create racial diversity, with or without racial preferences. “Harvard repeats ‘diversity’ like a mantra,” Mandery writes. Going forward, elite colleges should follow California’s lead by jettisoning legacy preferences and giving a meaningful boost to working-class students to indirectly achieve racial diversity. And, as Mandery suggests, Congress should pass legislation to ensure that endowments are used to promote social mobility, not further entrench the wealthy.

Mandery notes that a slot at a top university can be “transformative.” It can put a low-income or working-class student on a completely different trajectory in life. Ironically, it might be the conservatives on the Supreme Court who provide the push for elite colleges to open the doors to working-class students—many of them Black and Hispanic—who have until now been mostly shut out.

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.