The U.S. Supreme Court is pondering the fate of affirmative action, the policy in higher education that aims to increase the representation of African American and Hispanic students. Students of color have long been underrepresented in the nation’s top colleges. Affirmative action is a good faith effort to increase their numbers. Critics who oppose affirmative action want admissions to be based solely on objective measures, like SAT-ACT scores. The critics claim that white and Asian-American students are discriminated against by affirmative action and that the number of places available for them are diminished by affirmative action.

Iris Rotberg, professor of education policy at the graduate school of education and human development at George Washington University, contends in the Hechinger Report that the real scandal in admission to elite colleges is the large number of places set aside for white students.

She writes:

The main barrier is affirmative action for affluent white students, which uses up a significant number of admissions slots at many highly selective institutions. This preferential treatment constitutes a major obstacle for everyone else — including white students who are not in privileged categories.

Consider how affirmative action played out for Harvard’s class of 2023. More than 43 percent of admitted white students were in one of four categories that received preferential treatment: legacies, recruited athletes, applicants on the dean’s interest list and children of faculty and staff.

An analysis of this class shows that three-quarters of these students would not have been admitted if their applications had not received preferential treatment.

More important, that preferential treatment resulted in far fewer slots for other applicants.

In addition, Harvard gives preferential treatment to white students who attended elite private schools.

About one-third of Harvard’s students attended private high schools, compared with the national average of less than 10 percent….

While the Students for Fair Admissions case has prompted a unique analysis of Harvard’s admissions practices, the practices themselves are not unique and are consistent with practices at many other highly selective institutions, where a substantial number of white applicants receive preferential treatment.

At the same time, Black and Hispanic students continue to be substantially underrepresented at highly selective institutions. A 2017 New York Times analysis of elite colleges and universities, for example, found that Black students, who account for 15 percent of the college-age population, averaged only 9 percent of freshman enrollment at the eight Ivy League institutions; Hispanic students accounted for 22 percent of the student-age population, but averaged 15 percent of freshman enrollment.

In addition, Black and Hispanic enrollment rates are even lower when the list of institutions is expanded to include the top 100 elite colleges and universities. Black students comprised 6 percent of student enrollment and Hispanic students 13 percent at those schools.

As many studies have shown, the underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students does not reflect a lack of high-achieving students, but the barriers these students face in applying to highly selective institutions — costs, insufficient counseling and the recruitment policies of the institutions themselves, for starters.