Letters to the Editor

The Ethics of Legacy Admissions

November 09, 2010

To the Editor:

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, has recently published a pair of articles in The Chronicle to promote his new book on legacy admissions at American colleges and universities ("10 Myths About Legacy Preferences in College Admissions," September 22, and "A Response to Supporters of Legacy Preferences,"September 24). Mr. Kahlenberg makes no secret of his beliefs (the book's title is Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions), and while numbers make an occasional appearance in the articles, impartial social science does not.

Whether or not his prejudices should cast doubt on his credibility is a question we can leave aside, since his articles contain enough poor science to disabuse us of any sympathy we might have for his views. For a taste of Mr. Kahlenberg's inclinations, here are the concluding sentences of his first article:

"In a fundamental sense, this nation's first two great wars—the Revolution and the Civil War—were fought to defeat different forms of aristocracy. That this remnant of ancestry-based discrimination still survives—in American higher education, of all places—is truly breathtaking."

If Mr. Kahlenberg genuinely believes that legacy admissions disgrace the spirit of our forefathers, one can only imagine what he must think about expensive private high schools and family businesses—institutions that are much more efficient than selective colleges at keeping wealth in the family, evidently an un-American activity. Perhaps he would prefer mandatory public education and a 100-percent estate tax? And, for good measure, throw in a federal prohibition against hiring relatives.

For the most part, Mr. Kahlenberg dismisses each of the "10 Myths" with misdirections. He cherry-picks statistics from specific colleges, then compares the colleges as apples to oranges. He makes a habit of assuming that correlation implies causation. The California Institute of Technology, which does not give legacy applicants any preference, receives nearly as much financial support from alumni as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which does give legacy applicants a preference; thus he ostensibly proves that legacy admissions have no effect on alumni giving. As if the logical fallacy weren't enough, it turns out that MIT's legacy "preference," in fact, consists only of one extra review for rejected applications, very rarely changing the outcome of the process.

Even when Mr. Kahlenberg draws on serious academic research concerning legacies, he is very selective about which data he reports. To take one example at random, he refers to research by Thomas Espenshade, of Princeton University, that suggests that legacy status boosts an applicant's chance for admission by the equivalent of 160 points on the SAT. (Incidentally, this advantage is less than that typically received by blacks, Hispanics, and recruited athletes.) However, another study by Mr. Espenshade ("The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities,"Social Science Quarterly, June 2005) concludes that existing legacy-admissions policies "only mildly displace members of minority groups"—though one of the great "injustices" Mr. Kahlenberg laments is precisely this displacement. "Myth 9," in fact, is the idea that legacy admissions are only mildly harmful to nonlegacy students' admissions chances. Instead of proving that the idea is a myth, he diverts the reader by rattling off a paragraph of statistics about how wealthy and important selective colleges are.

It is especially hard to take seriously what Mr. Kahlenberg has to say about the legality of legacy admissions. Referring to an obscure constitutional detail about titles of nobility, he presents a case made by Carlton Larson (though Mr. Kahlenberg fails to disclose that he himself edited the paper) that legacy admissions are "precisely the type of hereditary privilege that the Revolutionary generation sought to destroy forever." I am no lawyer, but "Court Rules That Legacy Status Is Title of Nobility" sounds more like a bad headline from The Onion than a report any admissions officer should be worried about.

Mr. Larson, as Mr. Kahlenberg puts it, "makes a compelling case that this prohibition should not be interpreted narrowly as simply prohibiting the naming of individuals as dukes or earls, but more broadly, to prohibit 'government-sponsored hereditary privileges.'" But even if it meets legal muster, this argument applies only to public universities, many of which have already eliminated a legacy-admissions preference. Mr. Kahlenberg also claims that the 14th Amendment should prohibit the practice, referring to a constitutional argument, grounded in the principle of birthright citizenship, that children should be judged only on their own merits. But if a court were to take this argument seriously, it would also have to prohibit nepotism in hiring. No more working in Dad's hardware store.

I agree with many of Mr. Kahlenberg's sentiments. Until the 1960s, my own alma matter admitted all legacy students, causing the legacy population to rise to a peak of nearly a quarter of the class. Some of these students certainly did not earn or deserve their coveted spots. But these days it is hard to say whether any student really deserves her place in the freshman class. When the most selective universities confess that they can admit only a small fraction of the students they believe to be equally well qualified for admission, it's laughable to speak of an educational meritocracy. Would Mr. Kahlenberg be able to provide a list of selection criteria he thinks are best for any given institution? Many colleges use financial need as an admission criterion; is family income more meritocratic than family educational background?

Like Mr. Kahlenberg, I would prefer more merit-based admissions policies. But his insinuation seems to be that elite colleges and universities that maintain legacy policies do so in bad faith, or at least with ethical indifference coupled with inferior intelligence. In reality, the process of choosing among thousands of impressive applicants is not only greatly subjective but demands an extraordinarily complex balance of values. Perhaps one of those values, at least at some institutions, ought to be loyalty to the members of the community of learning. Every college should carefully deliberate legacy status, just as it evaluates the dozens of other evaluative attributes. There is no universal ethic, and Mr. Kahlenberg's pretensions to know the right answer for every institution are a dangerous reduction of morality to ideology.

Benjamin Miller

Sewanee, Tenn.