Admissions & Student Aid

Wait, Will Anyone Investigate Legacy Admissions?

August 03, 2017

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The debate over the fairness of race-conscious admissions is back in the headlines, but some experts say it’s time to examine others types of preferences, too — including those for the children of alumni. Above, the library building on the campus of Harvard Business School.

If a divided nation can agree on anything, maybe it’s this: Selective colleges run an unfair admissions process, stacking the deck against deserving students. Which ones? That depends on who’s complaining.

Earlier this week, it had seemed that the Trump administration might have been getting ready to turn conservatives’ longstanding complaints into action. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice planned to investigate "intentional race-based discrimination" in admissions. The next day, a department official told The Chronicle that the internal document cited by the Times did not "reflect a new policy or program or any changes to longstanding DOJ policy." And further reporting suggested that the department hasn’t declared open season on race-conscious admissions programs.

“One positive dividend of this week's news may be an increased focus on legacies. People are quite rightly coming out and saying there's lots of unfairness in the system. That's healthy.”

Still, a wasp nest has been kicked once more. As the age-old debate over affirmative action continues in the Trump era, it’s worth asking how the system is "rigged" — to use one of the president’s favorite words — and for whom. Amid the continuing questions about the fairness of considering the race of underrepresented applicants, let’s not forget the advantages colleges confer on the children of alumni.

"The system is rigged against disadvantaged students, and legacy preferences are the most blatant example," says Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation who argues for affirmative action based on class rather than race. "One positive dividend of this week’s news may be an increased focus on legacies. People are quite rightly coming out and saying there’s lots of unfairness in the system. That’s healthy."

Like most everything in the oft-reviled realm of admissions, questions about legacies are complicated. Sure, tales of millionaires and billionaires buying their children entrance to the Ivy League stoke outrage, and understandably so. Of course, most colleges have little in common with Harvard, and many legacies are solid students who don’t fly around on private jets. Even some advocates for underrepresented students say legacies are easy scapegoats for all the inequities in higher education. And colleges aren’t likely to stop coveting the offspring of alumni unless forced to do so, a prospect that, for better or worse, seems unlikely.

Many selective public universities and private colleges have long considered an applicant’s legacy status as one of many factors in admission. Yet "legacy conscious" practices have received less scrutiny than race-conscious ones. "We don’t see challenges to legacies because the vast majority of legacies are wealthy whites," says Marybeth Gasman, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. "They benefit and won’t challenge the system."

Challenging a system in the courts is both costly and time-consuming. Some legal experts can envision a plaintiff arguing convincingly that a college’s consideration of legacy status has a disparate impact on minority applicants. Yet some of the organizations most inclined to take up that argument, Mr. Kahlenberg speculates, might well lack the resources to support such litigation. Or they might think their resources are better spent supporting race-based policies, which for decades have been under constant attack.

In any case, legacy preferences probably would prove difficult to challenge successfully in the courts. All race-conscious practices are subject to "strict scrutiny review." That means colleges must clear a high bar when defending them. A slightly lower standard applies to gender-specific practices. Yet for other aspects of a student’s application, the likely standard would require an even lower bar (a "rational basis") for the challenged policy, says Arthur L. Coleman, managing partner of EducationCounsel LLC, which advises colleges on student-diversity strategies. Factors such as legacy status, family income, and geographic origin aren’t nearly as likely to trigger the same legal alarms as race does.

Other legal experts have challenged that notion, arguing that legacy preferences violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by extending benefits "based on lineage." But so far apparently no one has made that argument in federal court. When a plaintiff unsuccessfully challenged legacy policies back in the 1970s, she claimed her rights were violated by several other kinds of preferences, too (including those for athletes and in-state applicants). Though a recent lawsuit filed against Harvard University on behalf of Asian-American applicants says legacy preferences "operate to the disadvantage of minority applicants," the lawsuit's challenge concerns alleged racial preferences.

A Moral Obligation

Fairness isn’t just a constitutional question for black-robed judges. Lawsuits aside, admissions officials have a moral responsibility to examine the consequences of their legacy preferences, says Liliana M. Garces, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Texas at Austin. "They should think of their legacy policy in way that’s conscious of their diversity goals. It requires a really serious look at how that might be undermining those goals."

Rick Clark agrees. He regularly studies enrollment data to gauge whether his office’s consideration of legacies is "responsible." Making sure that legacy and nonlegacy students who enroll are just about equally qualified (as measured by grades and test scores) is one way of doing that. "Without question, it’s valid to challenge the equity of it all," he says.

Mr. Clark is director of undergraduate admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where nearly one-fifth of this fall’s incoming freshmen are legacies. He thinks that proportion is about right. Increasing it too much, he says, would jeopardize the institution’s pursuit of other goals, such as enrolling more low-income students (about one in five incoming students are eligible for Pell Grants). "The important thing is to demonstrate that these two enrollment goals aren’t mutually exclusive," he says. "There’s room for both."

These days, plenty of well-qualified applicants aren’t getting in. The overall acceptance rate for this year’s class was 23 percent; for legacies it was 33 percent. The gap, Mr. Clark says, is partly explained by the fact that most legacy applicants hail from Georgia. The institution admits in-state students at a higher rate than out-of-state students.

Recently Georgia Tech’s admissions office sponsored an event for alumni, partly to explain the institution’s increasing selectivity — and why the university is rejecting many more applicants, legacies included, than it once did. That sort of outreach to graduates stands as a reminder: For all the joy the modern admissions office might bring to some alumni parents, it’s delivering disappointment to many others.

“If you got rid of all the legacies, you probably wouldn't see a significant difference in the number of low-income and first-generation students in highly-selective institutions. That only happens when the institution decides it's a priority.”

In a field that’s often tight-lipped about its operations, Mr. Clark offers a candid rendering of why legacies appeal to colleges. First, there can be tangible benefits, such as higher retention rates — and higher giving rates down the line. "The financial model hinges on having our own alumni constantly connected to this place for the rest of their lives," he says. "That really is critical for the economic viability of institutions going forward."

That’s not all, though. Mr. Clark believes legacies, steeped in the traditions of a campus, foster community on the campus, the kind of connections that can help other students succeed. "I can’t put a percentage on it," he says, "but I know that the legacy element has value."

Even so, a college could easily get carried away in justifying its consideration of legacies. At institutions that have long embraced that tradition, the prospect of abandoning it might seem as absurd as chopping down all the trees on the quad. Yet somehow institutions that have stopped considering legacies altogether (such as Texas A&M University and the University of Georgia) manage to survive, increase selectivity, and raise money for new dorms, libraries, and basketball arenas. Then again, going legacy-blind might hinder some institutions more than others.

If used sparingly, legacy programs just might be a necessary evil, says Nancy Leopold, executive director of CollegeTracks, a Maryland nonprofit group that helps low-income and first-generation students get to college. Although legacy admits are often described as living, breathing barriers to college access, they don’t top Ms. Leopold’s list of concerns about admissions. Many other practices — reliance on standardized test scores, considerations of demonstrated interest — do more to hinder underrepresented applicants, she believes.

"If you got rid of all the legacies, you probably wouldn’t see a significant difference in the number of low-income and first-generation students in highly-selective institutions," she says. "That only happens when the institution decides it’s a priority."

Enrollment officials often describe their work as balancing tradeoffs among competing, even contradictory goals. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who view the system from the outside hold conflicting views of what should — and shouldn’t — count in admissions. According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) said colleges shouldn’t consider an applicant’s race. Yet they were more evenly divided over legacies. While 52 percent said colleges shouldn’t consider whether an applicant’s parents are alumni, 46 percent said that should be a factor.

Yes, the admissions process is rigged. But there’s no real consensus on exactly how it’s rigged.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.