What's wrong with Legacy admissions?

Last month I wrote about affirmative action, and now I want to talk about Legacy. Legacy is the practice of a university giving an admissions advantage to children of alumni.

I've seen increased calls to end Legacy lately, and one of the clearest and strongest just appeared. In "Higher Education's Biggest Scam Is Legacy Admissions Policies," Richard D. Kahlenberg looks at three reasons that many colleges cite for their legacy policies and refutes them. Kahlenberg edited a book about Legacy, so he knows what he's talking about. 

The first claim Kahlenberg rejects is that Legacy is "just a tiebreaker." Colleges may claim that Legacy is only used as a small factor that gives a very slight advantage to children of alumni, but the data suggests it's more than that. Kahlenberg points to research that shows "that legacy status provides a boost equal to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT (on a scale of 400-1600)." What's more, the data from 30 elite schools "concluded that legacy preferences of all kinds increased chances of admissions by 23 percentage points." These numbers are compelling, and they point to Legacy being more of a big deal than many colleges say it is.

Kahlenberg's second point is to attack the idea that "legacy preferences are needed to raise money." When universities claim that they need the Legacy program to encourage alumni to donate more money, Kahlenberg points to data showing "no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities." This makes sense. Once you graduate from a college, your potential children automatically get the Legacy benefit, because you're an alum. That I know of, no Legacy policies only apply to alumni who give lots of money--it's simply a matter of a parent who graduated from the school. So it's not surprising that there's little connection between alumni donations and legacy policies.

But I still find it puzzling that Kahlenberg would bring this up. As much as the data dispels the myth that universities need Legacy to get donations, it also dispels the myth that Legacy students simply have parents who can buy their way into the school. If there's truly no connection between Legacy and donations, then that seems to work against, at least slightly, the idea that Legacy is only the domain of rich people. If your parents pay full price for college and then you donate a lot of money over your life, then your kids get the Legacy preference. If you go to college on a full scholarship and donate nothing after graduation...your kids still get the Legacy preference.

Lastly, Kahlelnberg notes that it's not true that "everybody does it." People may claim that Legacy is just the way thing work. "But," Kahlenberg replies, "as journalist Daniel Golden has noted, legacy preferences are 'an almost exclusively American custom.' Oxford and Cambridge, for example, abolished legacy preferences long ago — as have such leading American universities as the California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles." It's funny that he mentions Oxford and Cambridge. Just today I came across this damning report on the elitism of Oxford and Cambridge. The author thinks that Cambridge and Oxford "should follow the lead of top colleges in the US who are proud to be 'needs-blind' and routinely give weight to an applicant’s class rank to ensure that talented young people who have succeeded against the odds are recognised." Harvard and Yale should be more like Oxford and Cambridge, but Oxford and Cambridge should be more like Yale and Harvard. Ok. Not every school uses Legacy factors. That's a fact. But it doesn't seem to support an argument for or against Legacy.

Kahlenberg is certainly an expert on these things, and I have no doubt that his intentions are good. Everybody wants college admissions to be fair. I won't argue against him on that point. But I do find some of his underlying assumptions to be very problematic. He seems to take SAT scores as evidence of true, objective merit, and I just can't and won't have that much faith in SAT scores. He also seems to believe, as many do, that "elite" schools matter more than schools not ranked highly on the US News & World Report list. I do not. He also sees Legacy as an aristocracy. I'll be more convinced of that when I see the statistics on third, fourth, and fifth generation students at particular schools. Two generations does not make an aristocracy.

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. 

The other thing I worry about it the unintended message that removing Legacy sends to current students, especially those from underrepresented populations. Harvard may have a lot of Legacy students, but it also has a non-white majority. If I were Harvard (I have no connection to Harvard, by the way), I wouldn't want to be seen telling people, essentially, "Look, for generations when you got into Harvard, it also meant your kids would have a better chance of getting into Harvard, too. It was one of the perks. But now that we're letting in more minorities and first-generation students like you, we better take that perk away. You know, for your own good." So I'm fine with Affirmative Action, and I'm fine with Legacy, but I'm really especially fine with combining the two. It helps endure that today's push for diversity and inclusion doesn't end up a fad, but gets built into the system.

What does Legacy mean to you as a high school student? Probably nothing. I don't know the official numbers for students who go to the same university that graduated a parent, but of the million or so college applicants I'll bet the number is really small. However, if you are thinking about applying to a parent's alma mater, consider a few things:

Are you sure? You need to choose a university for your future, not your family's past. If you're being pressured to attend a school you don't want to from your family's desire to keep up tradition, deal with that conflict immediately. Nobody wins when you end up someplace you're unhappy or unproductive. 

Does the school have a Legacy preference? If so, how do you take advantage? Don't assume that they'll know who you are--make sure you follow their procedures for letting them know you qualify and want Legacy consideration.

Remember that even schools with Legacy only use it as one of many factors. It doesn't mean you're automatically accepted, so plan for that.

If you're not a Legacy student and you come across someone who is, remember that Legacy is only one of many factors. Don't assume they got in automatically or unfairly because of their parents. If you're still upset and want to be angry, remember this: of all the advantages that wealthy, educated parents give to their children, Legacy is really one of the smaller ones. 


Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know who would like to read it. Follow Apply with Sanity on Facebook and Twitter.