Starting on Monday, Harvard University will be in federal court, accused of unlawfully discriminating against Asian-American applicants on the basis of race.
Filings in the lawsuit have shed light on several features of Harvard's approach to admissions. Among them: the preference given to children of its alumni.
Critics say that practice tends to favor affluent white students, and that ending it could help make room at the school for students who have more to gain from a Harvard degree.
The intertwined histories of racial preference and of legacy preference date back a century, to a period during which a new cohort of students — many of them Jewish or immigrants — were vying impressively for space in American universities.
And so family histories were invoked in the service of aspiring "Harvard men." In 1935, for example, a young John F. Kennedy wrote in a brief admissions essay: "I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father."
Today, Harvard and most other elite American universities say they rely on legacy status in the same way that they use race or other student characteristics: as a means of fostering a healthy and diverse campus (and alumni) community.
In 2011, the college’s longtime dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, said that his office gives what he called a “tip” to students who had at least one parent who graduated from Harvard or Radcliffe, its former sister school.
Back then, Fitzsimmons said, about 12 or 13 percent of Harvard undergraduates were in that category.
The size and nature of that "tip" remained officially unclear. But that changed when a federal judge compelled Harvard to share six years of admissions data as part of this latest lawsuit. The expert analyses of that data, prepared by both parties in the lawsuit, disagree on many counts. But all suggest that legacy preference can make a considerable difference as one applies to Harvard.
Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke economist, was retained to analyze the data by Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA), the group that is suing Harvard. His 188-page report includes the finding that applicants with at least one parent who graduated from Harvard or Radcliffe were accepted at a rate of nearly 34 percent. That’s more than five times higher than the rate for non-legacies over the same six-year period: just 5.9 percent.
And that advantage would interact with other characteristics in Harvard's holistic admissions system. Under his model, Arcidiacono writes, "an Asian male who is not disadvantaged with a 25 percent chance of admission ... would see his probability of admission rise to 79 percent if he was a white legacy and 87 percent if he was a white double legacy" (meaning that both of his parents graduated from Harvard College).
In his competing analysis prepared for Harvard, Berkeley economist David Card finds that Asian-American applicants got a still greater advantage from "legacy" status than white students in the same category.
School officials say the legacy gap can't be entirely attributed to deliberate weighting on the part of the school.
An analysis conducted by Harvard's own Office of Institutional Research found that "legacy" status conferred a 40-percentage point advantage of being accepted, but mainly for students already in the most desirable 20 or 30 percent of the applicant pool.
In an interview with Radio Boston earlier this year, Harvard's new president, Lawrence Bacow, said many "legacy" applicants are already there.
"Their applications tend to be well put-together," Bacow said. "They have deep knowledge of the institution. So it’s a self-selected pool, which, as a group, by almost any metric, looks very, very good relative to the broader applicant pool.”
Critics of the practice agree with Bacow — and say that, therefore, any policy of legacy preference amounts to a double advantage for already-privileged students.
The Arcidiacono analysis suggests that of around 4,500 American children of Harvard alumni who applied to the college in the six years under review, about 70 percent were white. In a Harvard Crimson survey of this year’s freshman class, nearly half of students with alumni parents reported that their families earn at least $500,000 a year.
That said, only around 60 percent of freshmen participated in that survey, and Harvard officials dispute its validity.
"There's no plausible moral claim that accidents of birth that advantage you — like being a man, or being a rich, white man — should give you a further advantage."Evan Mandery
Even still, the idea of granting that pool of students any additional privilege strikes Evan Mandery, who graduated from Harvard in 1989, as "insane."
"It's a complex ethical question — whether disadvantaging accidents of birth should be compensated for in the admissions process," said Mandery, who teaches at John Jay College in New York. "But there's no plausible moral claim that accidents of birth that advantage you — like being a man, or being a white man, or being a rich, white man — should give you a further advantage."
Five of the world's top 10 universities explicitly don't rely on legacy preferences in admissions decisions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge and the University of California at Berkeley.
But Harvard has defended the practice on multiple counts. Rakesh Khurana, dean of the college, has said a legacy preference can foster another kind of diversity — placing people with deep Harvard experience alongside those without it.
The admissions committee has further argued that legacy consideration "helps to cement strong bonds between the university and its alumni." A June filing says the university depends on alumni for "interviewing applicants" and for "financial support," and said the university would incur "substantial costs" — presumably in donations — if the policy were ended.
But President Bacow told Radio Boston it isn't as simple as dollars and cents.
"Our admissions process would be much easier if all we were gonna do is to auction off places in the freshman class. We don't do that. To the contrary, we seek out students who are talented and gifted and whose families can't afford to attend a place like Harvard," Bacow said.
If well-off, multi-generational Harvard families pay higher tuition and give more money, then — some have suggested — it may help keep the school tuition-free, or close to it, for families earning less than $150,000 a year.
In another report prepared on behalf of SFFA, Richard Kahlenberg argues that the university could make a suite of changes, including eliminating the legacy preference, to better serve the students who have the most to gain from admission.
He cites research that found that Harvard admits as many students from the richest 1 percent of American households as from the poorest 60 percent. And he says: "If African-American students were as underrepresented in Harvard’s population as first-generation college students currently are, blacks would constitute just 2.25 percent of the undergraduate student body — something Harvard would presumably find intolerable."
Kahlenberg, who works at the left-leaning Century Foundation, edited a 2010 book labeling the legacy preference "affirmative action for the rich." His work on behalf of SFFA, headed by the conservative activist Edward Blum, shows how the thorny questions of privilege, diversity and fairness brought on by this lawsuit have already resulted in some ideological scrambling.
This issue of an admissions preference for the children of alumni will be, at best, a sidebar in federal court this month. But it reveals how the practice of "affirmative action" in college admissions — stepping in to give a favorable "tip" to some students — extends well beyond universities' efforts at fostering diversity or correcting for historical exclusion.
Correction: MIT does not consider alumni parentage in admissions, and is ranked one of the world's top ten universities. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on October 12, 2018.
This segment aired on October 12, 2018.