Do elite colleges and universities discriminate against Mormons?

This study is getting a lot of attention lately.   An analysis by two Princeton professors shows that elite universities really only favor one kind of diversity, ie diversity based on skin color and/or Latino ethnicity. Asians and middle class whites — especially whites from rural backgrounds — are discriminated against. This analysis shows that the groups discriminated against include Pentecostals, evangelicals and Mormons.

I think the Princeton study will provide a lot of ammunition for those who feel the affirmative action process is outdated and unfair. If the stated purpose of admissions favoring diversity is to improve the university by admitting a wide variety of students, shouldn’t that wide range include religious students with different backgrounds?

It is worth pointing out that including in your application participation in rural farm organizations like 4H and Future Farmers of America actually HURTS you in the admissions process. Given how many Mormons participate in these groups in rural Utah and Idaho (among other places like rural Colorado, where I live), shouldn’t we Mormons be concerned about such discrimination?

UPDATE: Ross Douthat addresses this issue in his NY Times column here.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

25 thoughts on “Do elite colleges and universities discriminate against Mormons?

  1. We need to get over the idea that elite colleges exist for a different reason than the places where most people receive higher education, and not get too hurt that the rich folk don’t want us in their clubs. What we do need to watch for, though, is the administrators of good or great, but not so elite colleges who wish they were working at Princeton and try to mimic elite manners.

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  3. Whether one agree or disagree, isn’t the entire issue that such kinds of diversity movements are geared not simply toward minorities, but in particularly to underrepresented minorities?

    I haven’t looked at the data in this instance yet, but wasn’t it just a week or two ago that the Financial Times had an article talking about how surprisingly well-represented Mormons are in top business schools, and even when not, they are well-represented on Wall Street or in Big Law, so BYU candidates (for example) are on several firms’ recruiting pool lists? Similarly, you don’t do much to improve diversity at a school by inviting Asian students when, say, the UC system, is 40% Asian and there are measures to increase enrollment for white students

  4. My public law school seems to recruit LDS kids. Not that there’s a ton of us, but we make up about 2% of the student body (in contrast, active Mormons make up maybe 0.25% of the population of the general area). They like Mormons, and they do what they can to recruit us. Granted, my evidence is anecdotal, and perhaps my membership in the church was a negative factor at other schools (it certainly was at the University of Utah). However, one private school in particular tried to recruit me quite heavily because of my religion, and at least one public school (and very possibly others) viewed my religion as a favorable thing.

    I think my biggest problem with recruiting practices is how some schools view the children of alumni more favorably than other potential students. I realize they do that for funding reasons, but I think the practice stinks to the core.

  5. Geoff, I think this study is only true for undergraduate admission. BYU grads are disproportionately over-represented in top-echelon graduate programs, and advisors on campus in Provo use that as a selling point.

    I think it would be difficult to claim discrimination when the advisors at BYU are showing their success at placing their graduates into ivy grad programs.

    I think the study in interesting in several ways, but I doubt that there is a Mormon angle.

  6. Tim,

    “[P]erhaps my membership in the church was a negative factor at other schools (it certainly was at the University of Utah)”

    Gimme a break. As an undergrad in the U’s philosophy department, the one department that, intellectually, is most likely to be at odds with the LDS Church, I felt perfectly respected as an active Mormon. I saw absolutely NO SIGNS of anti-Mormon feelings.

    The idea that the University of Utah is anti-Mormon is an absolute myth. It’s usually perpetuated by over-zealous RM’s who feel the need to stand up to their “liberal professors” in class, and are summarily shot down for their inappropriate comments.

  7. Good points all. Andrew S, having studied at a relatively elite school, I can tell you the single biggest “underrepresented” minority at my school was rural white Christian and/or Mormon people. You met all kinds of other kinds of people but almost none of that particular group. Mark Brown, good point on undergrad vs. grad.

  8. Admitting graduate students and admitting undergrads are two different things. The grad students add to research output and bolster the institution’s claim that its elite status has something to do with academic quality. The undergrads are the ones that the school will be looking to in twenty or thirty years for big donations.

    So, first priority in choosing the next freshman class is to find good enough students who will become rich alumni. Legacy admission preferences help with this. After that, racial diversity counts for a lot these days; it enhances the experience of the white students and broadens the future elite cohort a bit. Admitting bright, poor white students wouldn’t broaden the elite class so much; their children will be indistinguishable from those in the upper-middle class family next door.

  9. Geoff,

    I don’t know if I’ve just been living in the Bible Belt and South for too long…but rural white Christians are not, in any sense, minorities. So that colleges try to represent others does not make them underrepresented minorities. I could see the argument for Mormonsif you used an “or” argument, but I don’t see elite schools as making an or argument rather than an “and” argument…that would be more likely of evangelicals who don’t regard Mormons as Christian. So, if Christians are not a minority, even if rural and white, then Mormons unfortunately aren’t either.

  10. Persecuted Mormon, I have to agree with Tim. Being a white, male, returned missionary can certainly be considered a negative factor for admissions into UofU’s law school – and even BYU’s. It has nothing to do with religion but instead has to do with seeking a diverse student body. The overwhelming number applicants to Utah’s law schools are white, male, returned missionaries. I personally believe that was a major factor of why I was not admitted to either school while at the same time minorities (including women) with markedly lower academic achievements were.

    The law school I eventually attended, however, actively recruited LDS students because they knew our basic work ethic and general disposition. We were typically married with children, studied hard, and did well in our classes.

    Parroting comments from above, I agree that there is a difference between recruiting undergrads as opposed to graduate students.

  11. #5–
    I’ve never taken a class at the U of U. I’m not saying that the classes themselves are anti-Mormon. I am saying that the law school at U of U, like most law schools, seeks diversity. That can include religious diversity. A white Mormon male from Utah doesn’t bring any obvious diversity to the U of U law school, and so such a person is at a relative disadvantage when applying to that school. On the upside, that person may have a slight advantage when applying at a school far away from Utah (again, for reasons of diversity).

  12. Should’ve updated comments before I posted. Jeremy said it better than I could.
    Over half of the LDS 2Ls and 3Ls at my law school, at least over the past two years, have made law review; most of the rest have made a huge impact in other areas. As far as law school outside of Utah goes, being LDS definitely has its perks–we have a good reputation and bring religious diversity to whatever school we’re at. No complaints about that.

  13. Jeremy & Tim,

    I jumped the gun a bit.

    I think you highlight some important factors that Utah and BYU consider when reviewing applications, but I disagree that being a white Mormon male is necessarily a negative in their eyes, it’s just not a plus.

    Anyway, my anecdotal experience, like others, is that Mormons are substantially overrepresented in graduate school. About 4% of my law school class was Mormon

  14. Andrew S, your comments bring us to the heart of the matter, which is: what is the purpose of diversity-based admissions?

    1)To give students a diverse group of people with whom to interact? If people come to a university and only encounter other people like themselves (ie, white RMs at the U) does that help create a good college experience?

    2)To give students who may be disadvantaged in one way or another a better chance of getting in?

    3)To specifically promote “underrepresented” racial or ethnic groups (African-Americans and Hispanics)?

    Personally, I think 1 and 2 are completely acceptable and laudable goals for an excellent university. One of the things that should happen when you go to a unversity is you should learn from other people different than you are. Personally, I consider it part of a university’s charter to expose you to other kinds of people so you can become a more complete and well-rounded person. In addition, a university should help the disadvantaged get a leg up.

    What this study seems to show is that a specific group of disadvantaged person — ie, rural Christian and/or Mormon, most of whom, by the way, have economic hardships of one kind or another — are actually discriminated against by elite universities. I find that problematic.

  15. Tim, your law school experience sounds very similar to mine – especially the LDS representation on law review. Moreover, it seems to be a common theme I have heard from friends that have attended other law schools around the country.

  16. Geoff,

    That’s why I began my first comment to the thread with “Whether one agree or disagree” (although now I wonder whether the subjunctive mood was appropriate there…)…we can agree or disagree whether affirmative action policies are acceptable or laudable, but that affirmative action and diversity policies are primarily geared at underrepresented ethnic groups (and/or gender) shouldn’t be too surprising. This is not to the separation of points 2 and 1 {although if we have to argue 1, then this is problematic, because there are studies that show that increased diversity is discomforting…so someone could easily argue that having shared values, goals, beliefs, creates a better college experience, even if it leads to insularity}, but is in conjunction with it.

    There are different programs for different kinds of disadvantaged persons. For example, some people say that affirmative action and diversity movements fail to help the disadvantaged because they don’t primarily focus on socioeconomic disadvantage. Well, that’s fair and good, but these programs weren’t *originated* to focus on socioeconomic disadvantage alone. To the extent that they focus on socioeconomic disadvantages, it is through underrepresentation in some other area.

  17. Jeremy,
    Your experience sounds a lot like mine. Not admitted to BYU or U of U (more because of a mediocre GPA and the fact that I applied after most of their spots had been filled than anything else); but it’s all for the best, because Utah’s over-saturated with lawyers from decent law schools, whereas my current area is not, and so I have more opportunities here. I’ve also done well enough (at a pretty good law school) that I considered trying to transfer to BYU or U of U after my first year–but then realized I’m happier here, despite being so far from family. My wife struggles with the distance from family, and I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to make it back West, at least for a while; that’s the only real downside. And quite frankly, the rebellious part of me enjoys being in a place where I’m a religious minority.

  18. Interesting post, Geoff. I am barely in the ‘in favor’ camp for affirmative action, but stuff like this still worries me. I get Andrew S’ point that it’s about ‘representation’ and that makes sense to me. I would love to try to define ‘representation’ however.

  19. middle class whites — especially whites from rural backgrounds — are discriminated against — that has always been the case, though. Why should anyone be surprised that social class discrimination still exists — especially at schools that exist to relish in social class issues? Graduate schools, especially professional schools, do the same, except their class markers are GPA and standardized test scores 😉

    I don’t think it is surprising.

    I had a friend who was admitted on an affirmative action admit, and then was tossed back out when he failed to provide enough flavor. He was there to provide flavor and color notes for the paying students, just like good wallpaper.

    Unfortunately, too much of what is going on is about style points rather than accomplishing anything good. Which is sad, really.

    There is a lot of good that can be done, could be done, should be done.

  20. I should note, of course, try being Greek. Planned Parenthood favored a eugenics program to sterilize all the Greeks. In colleges and graduate schools they have a lower per capita representation than Blacks. They’ve elected fewer presidents, and they are on the negative side of every affirmative action program.

  21. At least colleges have some sort of logic, flawed or not, about the process. Not even logic prevails when diversity becomes a mantra in corporations, numbers are all that matter. My wife worked at a major southern California defense contractor. She knew an engineer named Joe Ca-RILL-0. Joe’s paternal grandfather had left Spain about 60 years before. Joe grew up in South Dakota, just another anonymous caucasian. But when his employer committed itself to diversity he became Joe Ca-REE-yo, latino engineer. He was promoted, he was groomed, and of course he was a total fake. He knew that, everyone else knew that, but it was good for his career and it was good for the company’s image.

  22. This is a very small sample, but after my son returned from his mission (which was stated in his resume) he applied to graduate schools in a type of program where competition is stiff. He got interviews for two extremely competitive programs in the Midwest and East (and was accepted at one), yet heard nothing from less competitive programs in the West. There’s no way of knowing, but my theory is that his LDS background was a negative factor in those areas were Mormons are more well-known.

    He was accepted at one of those programs and through his branch found quite a community of LDS grad students. Since the state has a small LDS population, it’s possible that LDS students are even slightly overrepresented in grad programs.

  23. Bruce:

    You favor taking action against global warming, you favor affirmative action, you voted for Obama (if I’m remembering right) — In what sense precisely are you a conservative? : )

  24. Interesting, LDS students back in Florida enjoy a good reputation in the schools and seem to be favored. That has been my experience and the experience of many going to UM, Nova South estern and the likes.

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