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The problem is that more-selective colleges enroll a large number of students from higher-income brackets. For many highly selective institutions, chances are that if the legacy applicant is passed over, the student who takes the spot will have the same profile in terms of academic preparation and extracurricular experience. The only difference is that they won’t have alumni parents. If legacy status no longer matters, an Ivy League university will simply admit the children of another Ivy’s alumni.
The academic preparation of applicants from higher-income families who have invested significant time and money in their children — their real advantage — suggests that an end to legacy admissions might only change which student gets admitted to which top institution. If a college wanted to admit a more socioeconomically diverse student body, there are lots of other students they could bump to do so — athletes, for example, or higher-income students without alumni parents. Legacy admissions are not preventing them from doing so.
How much public support should institutions receive if they are rejecting students because of an applicant’s income?
The truth is that very few selective colleges are need-blind. Instead they tend to be need-sensitive (or need-aware) in the admission process. This means they take the financial need of applicants into account when making admission decisions, rejecting some students because of their low family income. If those colleges are prevented from admitting a legacy student who doesn’t have financial need, they will, given their limited funds, find a non-legacy student who likewise doesn’t need financial help. For this large group of selective colleges, ending legacy admissions would have little impact on their socioeconomic diversity.
Colleges that are need-sensitive argue that they don’t have the resources for financial aid that would allow them to go need-blind. It is true that greater spending on financial aid means less resources to spend on academic and extracurricular programs, which are in turn important in attracting applicants and retaining faculty and staff. But consider that the available resources of these institutions are supported by public policy and taxpayers. We must recognize the public benefit of making a college education available to students, independent of their families’ ability to pay. How much public support should institutions receive if they are then rejecting students because of an applicant’s low income? Admissions offices have effectively been empowered to answer this question and decide who gets access to these public subsidies.
What we should really be asking is whether the higher-education system in America is meeting the goals of public policy.
Illogically, the practice of legacy admissions is getting more attention while need-sensitive admissions is not. What we should really be asking is whether the higher-education system in America is meeting the goals of public policy and, if not, what we can change. Inequality in resources and spending per student across higher education has increased significantly in the last four decades, as the rich institutions have gotten richer, family incomes have become more unequal, and state governments have cut back on supporting public higher education. Private, nonprofit colleges currently spend about two to four times as much on educational and related costs per student than do public two-year colleges.
To improve postsecondary educational attainment in America, wealthier institutions should do more to help students with financial need, including spending more on student aid. Policy makers should increase support for modestly funded institutions that educate a large share of low- and middle-income families. President Daniels and I are in agreement on this. Ending legacy admissions might feel like a moral victory, but we shouldn’t claim that it will address the concerns about the limited socioeconomic diversity at these elite institutions. Instead, doing so is likely to have little impact at all.