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Why Colleges Should Favor the Kids of Alumni

August 11, 2004|Adam B. Kushner | Adam B. Kushner is the assistant managing editor of the New Republic.

President Bush has denounced his own pedigree. Speaking to a conference of minority journalists in Washington, he lambasted the legacy preference in college admissions, arguing that schools like Yale (his alma mater and that of his father, grandfather and daughter) should consider applicants strictly on their merits, not on whether they are related to alumni. Legacy admissions are a long-standing tradition. Historically, private universities -- especially the most selective ones -- have used them to cultivate a sense of family continuity and to attract donations from alumni, who are likely, according to administrators, to donate more generously when they think their children might gain admission.

In the early 20th century, when the practice began, it also served the tradition-bound alumni of East Coast colleges by keeping Jews out. Today, legacy students constitute roughly 10% of the student body at most elite schools, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The arguments against legacy admissions are straightforward. First, the argument goes, they nurture a kind of hereditary aristocracy in which the finest educations are passed down from one generation to the next. Second, they undermine diversity by admitting the children of alumni, a group that is overwhelmingly white. And third, legacies can weaken the overall character of a class by taking the spaces that would otherwise go to more qualified applicants. That's why Bush's position dovetails with his thoughts on affirmative action: He dislikes quotas and prefers that universities use merit.

But although there is undoubtedly some truth to these arguments, there's also a flip side. What Bush may not realize is that legacy admissions have a positive effect as well.

Most of the nation's elite colleges practice what's known as "need-blind" admission, which means that they consider the strength of applicants, not their ability to pay tuition. If you're admitted to Princeton, that school will help you find a way to finance your education, even if it means wads of financial aid. Naturally, less-privileged applicants benefit most from need-blind admissions. And many of those applicants are members of minority groups.

Problem is, keeping schools need-blind is expensive for the universities. An administrator at Columbia University, for example, told me that even students who paid their full tuitions -- about $32,000 this year, without travel, living expenses, housing or books -- were covering only 50% of the cost to educate them. Universities make up the difference out of grants (usually earmarked for research), investments and donations from alumni. And it is those critical donations from past graduates that are significantly boosted if those graduates believe it may help their own children gain admission.

What's more, according to administrators at several schools, these legacy donors often donate money specifically to finance aid for underprivileged students. So in effect, legacy admissions subsidize diversity.

Of course, that doesn't answer Bush's assertion that admissions "ought to be based on merit." That might be fine in a perfect world. But merit in this world is elusive, and the mechanisms for assessing it can be quixotic. As a Harvard dean once told me, merit cuts many ways. If it were so easy to measure, "you'd have a computer scan the top scores and top GPAs. We don't do anything like that. We look for people who have unusual success in terms of leadership roles, in terms of overcoming adversity, in terms of artistic talent." Moreover, at Harvard, the average legacy SAT score is only a few points behind the mean, according to newspaper reports.

Legacies are mostly useful insofar as they encourage (and pay for) diversity. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her majority opinion in Grutter vs. Bollinger, last year's Supreme Court ruling allowing race to be a factor for universities in shaping their admissions programs, we shouldn't need affirmative action to achieve diversity for more than 25 more years. But, now, opportunity is not equal. Until it is, there is a place for legacies. Nepotism unto itself is anachronistic and immoral. But, sometimes, nepotism is just another way to prompt pluralism.

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