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Alumni Privilege In College Admissions Isn’t Worth The Attention It’s Getting

Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court Monday, May 13, 2019, in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court Monday, May 13, 2019, in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)

As a legacy admittee at my college, I’m hardly objective about the debate over this form of affirmative action. Critics are renewing demands for abolition of preferential consideration of alumni’s children as actress Felicity Huffman prepares to learn her fate Friday — ominously for her, the 13th — at sentencing for her confessed part in last winter’s college payoff scandal.

Huffman was among the rich and famous who were charged with trying to bribe their children’s way into elite schools (some defendants continue to declare their innocence). The scandal “revealed a rot at the heart of higher ed admissions,” The New York Times editorialized last weekend in calling for an end to legacy admissions, which the paper deems a piece of that rot. The editorial echoed a years-old chorus of critics of this break.

I’m torn not just for reasons of my own CV. Some arguments against legacy preferences are bad, including bogus analogies with the payoff scandal, claiming both are flip sides of the privilege coin. As columnist Ross Douthat noted, the illegal exertions show the limits of privilege. These parents feared that being white, wealthy and well-known was insufficient to guarantee their mediocre students a good college; that’s why they tried to grease the skids with green.

Nevertheless, it would take cultural nasal congestion to miss the whiff of unfairness this policy emits. But while legacy admissions are not a cause for which I’d man the ramparts yelling liberté, égalité, fraternité!, I’d argue the case against them is overblown. (As always, I’m speaking for myself, not the university for which I work.)

Let’s first acknowledge that the scripted defense colleges offer for legacy admissions is, in places, as hole-riddled as some of the criticism. University leaders claim that admitting children of alumni helps pry donations from their families that pay for, among other things, financial aid for the less advantaged. But a 2007 study of 100 top schools found no “statistically significant” cause-and-effect between admitting legacies and total alumni giving.

Yet the case against this practice isn’t as slam-dunk as populist critics make it sound.

Yes, every class spot taken by a legacy could go to a high-achieving, underprivileged student. But since there are only so many spots at Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, and other elite campuses, and since competition for them is fierce, the number of students from poor families that could be educated in those places is necessarily small. From a policy perspective, if you believe (as I do) that college attendance is an important social welfare tool that delivers higher income over graduates’ lifetimes as compared with just a high school diploma, then scotching alumni preferences isn’t essential to that objective.

Instead, improving access to public universities — many of them fine schools, and all of them deserving of the resources needed to improve — is one of Bernie Sanders’s sounder ideas. Indeed, the premise behind the creation of the land grant universities in 1862 was that Harvard could do as it pleased admissions-wise; the government would concern itself with establishing a parallel system of public institutions to diffuse education among the masses, the “sons of toil,” as congressional sponsor Justin Morrill put it.

The Times declares breaks for alumni’s kids “anti-meritocratic.” If you define merit as deserving of admission regardless of DNA, that’s plainly wrong, and the paper all but walks back its claim a few paragraphs down, conceding the evidence that most alumni kids meet or exceed their schools’ entrance requirements. Junior may have family connections, but he’s not drooling in his beaker during organic chemistry.

So the Times editors try another tack, arguing that even if children of alumni are gifted academically, their special treatment amounts to a generation-to-generation handoff of the privilege baton that “inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system.” This observation short-changes the very real efforts academia has made to diversify the student body, which in turn diversifies alumni and their children who get a legacy break.

Here’s a headline example: As part of the ongoing suit against Harvard alleging discrimination against Asian applicants, it emerged that fully 80 percent of legacies in the Crimson class of 2014 were white. Five years later, that percentage had dropped by a quarter, to 60 percent.

Certainly the idea of legacy preferences discomforts some schools: If you read that 2007 study I mentioned, you’ll see the breakdown between colleges that retain the practice and those that have done away with it. Even so, a Brookings Institution writer, vociferously anti-legacy, still notes that “this is a microscopic issue by comparison to the vast inequalities in society.”

Correct, and given that our president wants to lay waste to truly important programs fighting inequality, fretting over whom the relative handful of elite universities admit needlessly sucks oxygen from the debate we should be having. My inability to get riled up over this particular affirmative action is of a piece with my defending affirmative action based on class. Giving some slots to legacies doesn’t mean you can’t also recruit and admit motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds to combat inequality in Harvard Yard. After all, those disadvantaged folks will, by virtue of their brains and degrees, be well-off alumni someday.

And their kids will be the legacies of tomorrow.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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