When my son and I met with the dean of admissions at my alma mater, he could not have been more accommodating. My son didn’t want to go, but I tricked him because they were holding the Cornell Open fencing competition that weekend and it made the perfect lure. He won, despite only being in high school, and they wanted him to fence for Cornell.* Plus, he was a direct legacy.
Of course, my son didn’t care. He didn’t want to go there, no matter how sweet the dean’s endearments. And he didn’t need my legacy bump to get where he wanted to go.
In a 2012 blog post, Chris Peterson, an assistant director in the M.I.T. admissions office, put the issue in stark terms. “I personally would not work for a college which had legacy admission because I am not interested in simply reproducing a multigenerational lineage of educated elite. And if anyone in our office ever advocated for a mediocre applicant on the basis of their ‘excellent pedigree’ they would be kicked out of the committee room. So to be clear: if you got into M.I.T., it’s because you got into M.I.T. Simple as that.”
He got into MIT. He was recruited for fencing, but as the coach made absolutely clear, he still had to be admitted on his own merit. He was. And it won’t do his children any good, as MIT doesn’t do legacy. So legacy admissions never did anything for me before, and it doesn’t appear that it will do anything for me in the future.
So I ought to be all for its elimination, as the New York Times editorial urges.
The policies originated in the 1920s, coinciding with an influx of Jewish and Catholic applicants to the country’s top schools. They continue today, placing a thumb on the scale in favor of students who already enjoy the benefits of being raised by families with elite educations.
It was born as a means to stem the tide of smart Jewish and Catholic immigrant kids from taking space that would otherwise belong to WASP families.
Preferential treatment for legacy admissions 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.
Certainly, there is nothing about having a parent who attended a particular college that has any inherent bearing on a student’s merit, and if they’re filling seats based on heredity, then those are seats that can’t be filled by the more worthy students. And since the alumni of elite schools tended to be wealthy and white, filling seats with their little darlings would naturally tend to perpetuate those characteristics.
Is there any argument, any virtue, any justification for keeping legacy admissions?
Colleges counter that the children of alumni — partly by virtue of the education their parents received — are well qualified for admission into their schools. That raises the question: If the value of a degree is indeed generational (research shows that it very likely is), why do the progeny and grandprogeny of graduates deserve yet another thumb on the scale?
It may be that the children of smart alumni are similarly smart, and not just the idiot offspring of the American aristocracy. But if so, then why do they need legacy admissions if they can earn admittance on their own merit? The ding against legacy admissions isn’t necessarily that the students are dopes who could never get in without a leg up, but that they get a leg up to nudge them above equally worthy students.
The most obvious argument for legacy admissions is money.
Schools make various arguments about the value of legacy preference. Most often, they argue that it helps with donations, which in turn helps fund financial aid programs for needy students and the construction of facilities that help the entire organization.
There is a reason why odd names appear on ivy-covered buildings, but the Times argues that it’s not as legit a point as one might believe.
Research, however, has cast serious doubt on this line of reasoning. A group of researchers studied data from the top 100 schools in the country (again ranked by U.S. News) from 1998 to 2008 and found that “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”
Note the peculiar “total alumni giving” language, which seems to skirt the question. The donation angle bears upon one donor able and willing to pay for a building when needed rather than 10,000 donations that may ultimately come in.
Another argument that college presidents make is that multigenerational enrollment helps improve the institutional ethos, tightening the bonds of community for those lucky enough to be admitted.
There’s a family-like aspect to being a member of the college club, and that family bond grows tighter and more useful when it’s kept within the family as well. When ten generations of Whites attend Harvard, they might think of themselves as a Harvard family and be inclined to help other member of the family, even if they aren’t Whites.
That may be so, but it comes at a high cost in unfairness. College admission is a zero-sum proposition — for every legacy admitted, another promising applicant is denied the career and economic opportunity that a top degree can provide.
And this is where the argument against legacy admissions gets caught up in its own mess. While the argument for legacy admissions is mostly sentimental, the argument against it is to replace tradition with diversity.
Whatever the mechanism, it makes sense for a group of competitor schools to take the leap together, a mutual stand-down. Doing so would be in the best traditions of American higher education, which for decades has worked to extend opportunity to generations of poor and minority students.
It’s almost as if not having a parent who went to Harvard will give you the new leg up, whereas being a legacy is a mark against you. It’s good for diversity, but is it changing one unfair process for another, except the new one won’t pay for a new building? Then again, maybe it will but with names on the buildings that would make John Harvard roll in his grave.
*Cornell no longer has a men’s fencing team, an early victim of Title IX quotas. There is still a women’s team, but the men only have a competitive club.