Legacy Admissions – Affirmative Action for the Rich?

American colleges and universities have been catching flak for decades over preferential admission policies. Preferences based on race have led to plenty of litigation and legislation. Preferences for athletes have led to jokes about football players who can’t read their diplomas after they graduate. A third kind of preference, though, has elicited little controversy until recently – legacies.

Legacies are students who are related to someone who graduated from the school, usually a parent or grandparent, although sometimes the relationship is further out on the family tree. If the student has the academic profile to merit admission without any preference, there is no reason to raise an eyebrow. But what if Junior applies to Dad’s alma mater and would be rejected on the basis of his grades and SAT scores? Quite a few schools will accept him in place of another student who has a better scholastic record.

For centuries, that has been part of college tradition, no more to be questioned than playing Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March at graduation. That’s no longer the case.

In 2003, Senator Edward Kennedy sought legislation to compel colleges to make public their data on legacy admissions. It didn’t pass due to higher education’s powerful lobbying. More recently, John Edwards promised during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination that he would do everything he could to put an end to legacy admissions. The issue isn’t going away. Legacy admissions create a perception of unfairness and politicians aren’t likely to allow an issue like that to drop.

Why do colleges and universities court legacies and sometimes admit them in preference to other applicants with stronger academic profiles? The answer, simply, is money. Many schools believe that they are apt to receive more in donations by admitting legacies. Data from the University of Virginia indicate that 65 percent of legacy parents contributed to the university’s 2006 capital campaign compared to only 41 percent of the rest. Furthermore, legacy parents were more generous, giving an average of more than $34,000 each, while the take from non-legacy parents was barely above $4,000 each.

Even at selective, state-supported schools like UVA, administrators would rather have more money coming in than less.

Legacy defenders argue that there is nothing wrong in trying to keep the coffers full, especially since the added revenue makes it possible for schools to give more financial aid to students from poorer families. That sounds good, but how true is it? Three elite schools that are big on legacy preferences – Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – rank near the bottom when it comes to the percentage of students from poorer families they have, according to Professor Jerome Karabel in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Good students from poor families are often deprived of admission because of the legacy tradition — they are less frequently helped by the additional funds that the legacy tradition brings to the school.

Private schools ought to be free to operate as they please, but public universities have a mission of serving the interests of the people to the best of their ability. The case for allowing legacy preferences at public universities is very shaky. Ward Connerly, the outspoken former University of California regent (and Pope Center keynote speaker in 2006), contends that they have no place in what should be meritocratic systems. He succeeded in getting legacy preferences banned at the University of California in 2000, four years after his victory over racial preferences through California’s Proposition 209.

Connerly’s position is based on principle. The government should no more prefer individuals just because of a family connection to a university than it should prefer individuals just because their ancestry happens to put them into an “underrepresented minority” category.

That is a sound argument, both legally and educationally. The purpose of the 14th Amendment was to keep state governments from preferring some of their citizens over others. Preferring an applicant just because of his family ties to a university certainly runs afoul of the spirit of equal protection of the law.

Educationally, admitting a less well-qualified student simply because of his family ties leads to a student mismatch problem. That is, a legacy student with a relatively weak academic record is apt to find it difficult to compete with the rest of the student body. In a recent paper (“The Effects of America’s Three Affirmative Action Programs on Academic Performance,” published in Social Problems in 2007), Princeton professors Douglas Massey and Margarita Mooney conclude that “The greater the gap between a legacy student’s SAT and the institutional average SAT, the lower the grades he or she earned, although the effect size was modest.”

That stands to reason. When a school admits students with comparatively weak academic abilities because they have some other trait, it’s setting them up for trouble. Both students and schools are best off when the student body is fairly homogeneous in academic ability. Preferences for any reason – race, legacy, athletic ability – get in the way of that.

It is doubtful that dropping legacy preferences has any significant impact on donations to a university. Texas A&M and the University of Georgia are among the large universities that have abandoned legacy preferences and neither has suffered a detectable decline in support.

Unfortunately, the UNC schools don’t put out information on the numbers of legacy students they have or, more importantly, the degree to which they are given an edge. Chapel Hill’s web site says that legacy status is only used in “tie-breaker” situations and states that giving a “significant advantage” to legacy students would be unfair.

Correct – it would be unfair. That is why the best rule for UNC (or any other state university system) to follow would be to have a rule against any preference to legacy applicants.

Governmental institutions ought to treat citizens equally to the greatest extent possible. When students A and B are vying for a place in the freshman class, it’s wrong for a state university to say, ”We’ll admit A because we think his family will give us more money.” That’s true no matter why it’s thought that A’s family will donate more – whether it’s because A’s dad graduated from the school or just because A’s family is very rich.

Finally, a clear rule against legacy preferences would make it easier for schools to drop all other sorts of preferences. Public universities shouldn’t discriminate for or against any citizen, but evaluate all applicants on the basis of their academic abilities.

George C. Leef is the vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.