White lies

It’s that time of year again: college admissions season. Parents are stressing, high school counselors are grinding, and 17-year old seniors are rewriting their 500-word Common App essays to better encapsulate their entire personhood. Oh, if only I could go back! Not too long ago, we were in their shoes and, as fate would have it, we were all accepted to Duke, made the decision to enroll, and are in the midst of spending the next four (or so) years of our lives here. According to the extremely credible, undeniably toxic world of YouTube college decision videos, all of us Duke acceptees were among the lucky few who were victorious in earning a coveted spot at an “elite” academic institution. We should congratulate ourselves on building a strong application where we presented ourselves, our accomplishments, and our ambitions in a compelling way–but were all of us honest in the self-depicted identities we laid out in our applications?

The college admissions process is well-known for its murky definition of deciding admittance after examining a candidate through a “holistic process,” prompting applicants to agonize for hours whether they should submit their standardized test scores or if enrolling in just one more AP course their senior year will tip the odds in their favor. They ask questions of themselves regarding the vibe of their “Why Duke” essay, like does it seem insincere to mention the names of three specific professors I want to do research with, or should I stick with just two instead? While these considerations are somewhat understandable, another side of the applicant pool is the students who make the strategic decision to switch their response to an application question they were objectively born with the answer to: their racial identity.

According to a study published by Insider last fall, an alarmingly large number of white applicants annually decide to knowingly lie about their racial identity on their college application, presenting a false version of themselves and their backgrounds to admissions officers. Their stated reason for this? They believed they would receive a higher chance of admission and amount of monetary aid from the institution to which they are applying if examined as a minority applicant instead of their actual race. The percentage of white students claiming minority identities, according to Insider’s study, totals more than a third–reaching a glaring 34%. Out of this 34%, nearly a half claim to be Native American and/or Indigenous. To play devil’s advocate for a moment: Insider’s study only had a response pool of 1,250 students and its wonky methodology arguably undercuts the survey’s usefulness to equate the entire college applicant population to. But even still, its findings are indicative of a problematic admissions phenomenon that is occurring at a substantial rate, even though its true numbers fall below Insider’s lofty 34%.

The question of racial identity requires students to only self-report their responses, an expectation that understandably assumes a 17-year old would not claim a marginalized identity they do not actually hold. And, presumably, many of these white high school seniors do not prescribe themselves a false racial identity of their own volition. This choice can be assumed to be the result of a group conversation that included the applicant's parents, who have undoubtedly instructed their children the why and how of playing this immoral game. For someone to claim centuries of historical trauma and colonial subjugation that is not their own, for the mere purpose of increasing their chances to go to a certain school: their intention is well thought through–they understand what they are doing. Let’s just say, this isn’t a first rodeo kind of decision; you are more than comfortable with the premise of stomping on the marginalized if the Common App is a place where you choose to do so.

This year more so than ever, conversations surrounding college admissions practices have been complicated by the anticipated upcoming Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action. If you missed it, several weeks ago the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments against the legality of affirmative action, a practice which allows colleges to consider race in admissions processes on the premise of building a diverse student body. I stress the word diverse because it is the only precedent upon which the Court has upheld affirmative action as constitutionally legal in past decisions. With the Court’s recent onslaught of precedent-bucking decisions and their line of questioning during last week’s arguments, the future of affirmative action appears to be in severe jeopardy. 

While the Court’s impending decision would miss this year’s college application cycle, its ramifications would go into effect after the decision is released–which is expected to come in June of 2023. In practice, this would lead to decreased rates of Black and Latinx students at top universities; this result has been proven through the overturning of affirmative action in the 1990s in California, where the majority of their public universities now lack racially diverse student bodies that are representative of the state’s population at-large. Similar results can be expected on a much larger scale if affirmative action were to be ruled illegal federally.

Justice Clarence Thomas made the statement during the arguments that parents “don’t necessarily send (their kids to college) to have fun or feel good or anything like that” as a means of discounting affirmative action’s need in college admissions practices. But what Justice Thomas failed to consider is that without affirmative action policies, many of our nation’s marginalized students would miss out on the chance to attend top universities in the first place, whether they wanted “to have fun or feel good” or study physics 24/7. This fact is not the result of a lack of aptitude or effort on the part of minority-identifying students, but because the current pre-college educational resource landscape is so dramatically unbalanced.

When considering Insider’s study in relation to the Supreme Court’s anticipated decision, we must ask: When the privileged are already cheating the system, how can we move towards progress if we are making it more difficult for equity to prevail? We know those who are in positions of power have the resources to attend competitive high schools, pay for standardized test prep, access a myriad of extracurricular activities and build their cultural capital through elaborate experiences not extended to everyone. With this in mind, we would all face immeasurable loss if the ivory gates of elite universities–like the one we ourselves attend–are once again distanced from students who have historically been barred from reaping their benefits.


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