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What’s all that got to do with killing off legacy preferences?
A Supreme Court ruling is not actually going to force colleges to drop legacy preferences, but a commitment to diversity and common decency should. How hypocritical and mercenary — how exposed — will colleges look next summer if the only preferences left in admissions are for wealthy, white applicants? If the justices are going to ban admissions officers from considering the impact race has on access to opportunity in America, then college presidents and boards of trustees will have little choice but to stop putting a thumb on the scale for the children of alumni.
Legacy preferences have been indefensible from the start. Ivy League colleges began providing them in the 1920s and ‘30s as a way of limiting the enrollment of Jewish students. Over time, the practice spread. In 2020, some 787 colleges indicated that they considered “alumni relation” in their admissions’ decisions, but many of those colleges admit most of the students who apply, so providing an advantage to the children of alumni has little impact.
Where legacy preferences really matter is at the 64 colleges that admit less than a quarter of applicants. Eighty percent of those colleges provide an advantage to children of alumni. It can be decisive in an application pool where there are three or four academically qualified people for each spot in the freshman class. Critics of affirmative action often say college admissions should focus on academic merit alone, but highly rejective colleges need to look beyond grades and test scores to determine whom to admit. In a holistic admissions process, admissions committees look at factors that students have some control over, like their participation in athletics and extracurriculars or their personal essays, and some they don’t, like their residence, income, and race.
If the justices are going to ban considering the impact race has on access to opportunity in America, college leaders will have little choice but to stop putting a thumb on the scale for the children of alumni.
Once applicants meet the very high academic threshold typical of students enrolled at wealthy, selective colleges, nonacademic factors can make all the difference.
During the initial trial that led to today’s hearing, Harvard’s dean of admissions testified about the impact nonacademic factors can have in determining who gets admitted. Admissions officers at Harvard rank all applicants on academics from 1 to 5. Four-fifths of admitted students earn a 1 or a 2, but that ranking does not guarantee admission. Only about 15 percent of those academic stars, the dean explained, were admitted in a typical year. If, however, a student who was rated an academic 1 or 2 came from a household earning less than $60,000 per year, the admit rate increased to 24 percent.
Clearly, Harvard believes that a student who is not born with the opportunities that come with wealth has earned some preference in the admissions process. Merit, after all, is not just about what you have achieved but also about how far you came to do so. So bravo, Harvard. Good on you.
But Harvard also believes that students whose parents went to Harvard have earned some preference by virtue of their lineage — indeed more preference, since the admit rate for legacies rated an academic 1 or 2 was 55 percent.
Considering equally gifted students, Harvard denied three-fourths of them who came from working-class families, but it admitted a majority of the legacies. Students with all the advantages of being raised by Harvard graduates were given spots that could have gone to equally deserving poor kids.
There is no need to argue anymore. Everyone knows legacy preferences are unfair, including, I suspect, college presidents, but they are afraid of angering alumni and losing donations. In a moment of candor, the vice president of Stanford University’s alumni association once admitted that admissions is “the point at which the university is most vulnerable in its relationship with its alumni.” Legacy preferences are a way to protect that relationship. But the cost is too high, and not just for more deserving students. In the wake of the Varsity Blues prosecution and with the rising costs of colleges, the unfairness of legacy preferences further corrodes the trust Americans put in higher education to increase social mobility rather than to reinforce privilege.
Should the Supreme Court decide come June, when a ruling is likely, to ban the consideration of race in college admissions, college presidents will have the cover they need to stand up to alumni and stop offering a quid pro quo for their devotion and donations.
There is a strong precedent for dropping legacy preferences in response to the elimination of race-conscious admissions. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was also a president of Texas A&M University, stopped the use of legacy preference at his institution in 2004, after Texas voters banned the consideration of race in admissions at public universities. The University of California system did the same after voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which barred public universities from considering race in their admissions processes. The University of Georgia ended the practice after a court ruled its racial preferences unconstitutional in 2001.Surely, we can expect the same from America’s selective private colleges and universities, both out of a sense of shame and out of a genuine commitment to diversity that demands the removal of a preference that heavily favors wealthy white students.
If a sense of shame is not enough, then those colleges must be exposed. One of the reasons legacy preferences have been able to fester for so long is that they have been hidden away from the public. The U.S. Department of Education should let the sunlight in. The department conducts an annual survey that every institution of higher education in the nation is required to complete and publishes the results. The Department of Education should begin collecting data on admissions practices, including legacy preferences, and disaggregate that data by race, ethnicity, and gender. Most colleges already collect this information, particularly the wealthy, selective colleges, since they carefully shape their classes, so it would be little burden to require them to report it.
These changes should have been made years ago, but they will become imperative if the justices end up ruling as expected. Policy makers, researchers, state higher-education leaders, students, and families will need to track the effects that the end of the consideration of race in college admissions have on diversity and opportunity in the coming years, particularly if colleges continue to give the children of alumni an advantage.
The Supreme Court began digging the grave today. Now it’s up to colleges to finally bury legacy preferences.