Rethinking Legacy

Last week the New York Times published an editorial calling to “End Legacy College Admissions.” Legacy admissions, in which universities give an admissions boost to applicants with relatives who also went to the university, the paper argues

“is anti-meritocratic, inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system. In short, it is an engine of inequity. Little wonder that it is unpopular with most Americans, yet supported by the affluent who both oversee the college admissions process and are its primary beneficiaries.”

I’m on the record as being fine with Legacy. I ran a blog post two years ago called “What’s wrong with Legacy admissions?” and I still stand by it. In fact, I’d like to reiterate why I’m not as bothered by Legacy as the New York Times editorial board. It’s not that I think it’s a perfect policy that needs to be defended at all costs; I’m just not nearly as bothered by it as the Times.

First, I’ll just quote myself from that older post:

Given my support for Affirmative Action, you may be surprised to know that I also support Legacy, but I do. And I support Legacy for the same reason I support Affirmative Action: universities are not simply honor societies that recognize high-performing high school students. Universities are communities trying to find good matches for their community, and they should have the freedom to do that.

Colleges are looking for students who can graduate and will be a good fit for the present or desired culture of the school. Legacy students make sense as a good bet for colleges. Legacy students aren't just applying blindly--they know about the college. If their parents are active alumni, then the students may already be a small part of the college community through visits.

When you let go of the idea of "deserve" and instead think of college admissions like a relationship, then Legacy seems no more--but certainly no less--a legitimate factor than SAT scores, demonstrated interest, or athletic ability. 

In college admissions we talk all the time about “good fit.” Don’t just look at rankings, we say, but think about fit. Knowing that you’re interested in a particular college because one or both of your parents went there seems like something schools would want to know. It tells them about your fit.

It helps to think not just about elite schools in the Northeast like Harvard and Yale. The schools with the biggest Legacy populations? Notre Dame and Baylor. I live in Houston, and I know a handful of people who are second- or third-generation students at UT Austin, Texas A&M, or LSU. Their parents went to football games, wore school t-shirts, and took them to Homecoming. They felt a part of UT (or A&M or LSU) long before they actually applied there. Their family background, their legacy, made them a good fit for the school. Universities should not have to ignore this family history if it’s there.

Legacy is often described as “Affirmative Action for rich people.” In practice, that certainly seems the case. But I’d still like to point out that Legacy is need-blind. If you’re a legacy applicant who is wealthy, you get the Legacy boost. If you’re a legacy applicant who is going to need full financial aid, you get the Legacy boost. And whether you’re wealthy or not, once you graduate, your children will also get the Legacy boost, no matter how much or how little financial aid they will need. If you want to go after an admissions policy that favors the rich, I’d ask you to have a look at Early Decision.

When it comes to defending Legacy, I’m usually not thinking about the current generation of college applicants. I’m thinking about the next. For the past 20 years or so, more and more universities are beginning to understand the value of diversity and inclusion. And, as bad as many of our elite universities have actually been at promoting diversity and inclusion, there’s already a backlash. You probably already know someone who says that colleges are too focused on diversity. If the inclusion trend doesn’t hold, and colleges are forced—through politics, funding, public opinion, or some combination—to make diversity less of a focus, Legacy helps insure that the project can’t be abandoned completely.

Also please keep in mind that Legacy is a small factor in admissions, not a guarantee. People point out that Harvard has a Legacy admissions rate of around 33%, and at Penn it’s closer to 40%. That’s definitely a lot higher than their overall acceptance rate, but it still means that the majority of Legacy applicants aren’t accepted. And the graduation rates at these universities are in the high 90s, so nobody—Legacy or not—is getting accepted who can’t cut it.

How does a “small factor” get one group an acceptance rate of 33% when the overall rate is 6%? Because any small factor is going to have an outsized effect. The quality of the applicant pool is that high. Say you’ve got 30,000 people applying for 2,000 spots at a university. The university is going to accept around 3,500 people in order to fill those seats (because some of the people they accept will go elsewhere). So 30,000 applicants for 3,500 acceptances. The thing is, if you throw out the applicants that have low test scores, low grades, or poorly written essays, you’re still going to have around 20,000 qualified applicants for the 3,500 acceptances. From those 20,000 throw out the ones who didn’t do an impressive project or have leadership positions in high school…and you’ve still got about 17,000 applicants for those 3,500 acceptances. It’s when you get into the small factors, like Legacy, or being an elite athlete or artist, or being a public figure, that some of those other applicants start to get left behind. Small factors make a big difference, because so many people already meet the requirements for the big factors.

I’m probably going to lose this argument, and that’s fine. I won’t be hurt or upset if Legacy admissions goes away. I don’t think it will harm any individual school or the educational system at large. It will be fine.

But I have to warn that getting rid of Legacy isn’t going to fix everything, or a lot of things, or perhaps anything. What the opponents of Legacy want, which is the same thing I want, is for college admissions—especially at the elite schools that educate a disproportionate amount of our political, corporate, and social leaders—to be a fair meritocracy instead of based on wealth. But there’s no single policy change that’s going to make that happen. As I’ve argued before, the wealthy don’t dominate higher education because of a single trick—not Legacy, not Early Decision, not donations, not bribes. Likewise, there’s no single trick that’s going to solve the problem.

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