Eager to Torch Legacy Preferences

Give Richard Kahlenberg credit for persistence. For years, he has advocated the elimination of legacy preferences–the policy at many colleges and universities of favoring the children of their alumni, admitting many of them instead of better-qualified applicants who don’t have the family ties. He has recently written a book on that subject and on September 29, had an article in The New York Times.

He makes a sound case against legacy preferences, although I disagree with his proposed remedies (litigation or legislation to ban or at least penalize such preferences). More importantly, his case against legacy preferences applies with equal force to admissions preferences based on race and ethnicity. Kahlenberg tries to separate the two, but his attempt to distinguish the cases (as lawyers would say), falls flat.

First, let’s look at Kahlenberg’s argument on the merits of legacy preferences. He points to research showing that they are quite prevalent. At many selective institutions, legacies make up between 10 and 25 percent of the student body and to get those numbers, the admissions people are putting a heavy thumb on the scales. “Being the child of an alumnus adds the equivalent of 160 SAT points to one’s application…and increases one’s chances of admission by almost 20 percent,” he writes.

In his article, he doesn’t elaborate on why that’s undesirable (perhaps he does in the book, but I haven’t received a copy yet), but I will offer my own view. It is not educationally good to mix students of greatly differing capability. When professors confront classrooms with some sharp and eager students but others who are much less so, the tendency for them is to adjust their content and expectations downward to keep the less engaged students content.

That isn’t an iron law and undoubtedly there are exceptions. Given the egalitarianism that has washed over much of academia, however, many professors make the adjustments needed to avoid giving weaker students low grades.

Therefore, legacy preferences hurt the good students who are in the class by diluting their educational experience. They also hurt the good students who aren’t in the college at all because other students were admitted in his place due to legacy preferences.

What can the colleges say in their defense?

They put up the argument that giving legacy preferences increases loyalty among alumni and increases donations. Kahlenberg responds that there is scant evidence to show that legacy preferences have any significant impact on alumni loyalty or giving. I’ll add that even if there were some impact, schools ought to put academic integrity over getting some additional money. The selective schools that practice legacy preferences are not starving for funds and already spend loads of money on things having nothing to do with education.

So the facile defense that legacy preferences is good for the school turns out to be groundless. Just as groundless, I would say, as the argument that racial preferences are needed because they “improve educational outcomes,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a solution to the legacy preference problem, Kahlenberg suggests two possibilities. One is litigation to have legacy preferences declared illegal under the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Lawyers stretch the Constitution and statutes all the time and I think it’s a super-stretch to believe that either the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act was meant to say that it is illegal for Harvard to choose an applicant just because his dad is a grad. Legacy preferences are a bad idea, but not every bad idea should be illegal.

His other suggestion is for Congress to outlaw preferences at schools receiving federal money. I don’t like that idea either. Besides the fact that that would ratchet up the level of government control in our already overly controlled country another notch, such a ban would lead to still more litigation. Why? Disappointed applicants would threaten to sue if the school has admitted any students with family ties, even if they did not receive any admissions preference. We’d probably find cases being filed claiming that the plaintiff would have been admitted if it weren’t for the fact that a legacy student was admitted under a hidden preference formula.

We already have too much litigation. A law banning legacy preferences would lead to more.

Instead of looking to coercion, I suggest we stick with persuasion. I’m completely in Richard Kahlenberg’s corner. Let’s convince schools that they should drop legacy preferences of their own volition.

And while we’re at it, how about using the same approach to convince schools to drop racial and ethnic preferences? Preferring an applicant because his ancestors came from Africa is no better than preferring an applicant because one of his ancestors graduated from the university.

Kahlenberg desperately wants to deflect that line of thinking though. “Affirmative action policies are controversial,” he writes, “because they pit two fundamental principles against each other – the anti-discrimination principle, which says we should not classify people by ancestry, and the anti-subordination principle, which says we must address a brutal history of discrimination.”

Well, classifying student applicants by racial ancestry (and regarding some as more desirable than others) is fundamentally no different from classifying them with respect to whether or not someone in the family line graduated from the school. It’s just as arbitary to say, “We want more legacy students” as it is to say, for example, “We want more Native American students.”

As for the “brutal history of discrimination,” it does absolutely nothing to atone for that by giving children born around 1992 to families that might have ancestors who experienced discrimination generations ago a preference over other applicants.

And as I suggested above, racial preferences are defended by weak arguments (“diversity improves educational outcomes!”) that are on a par with the arguments schools use to defend legacy preferences (“donations might fall if we stopped preferring children of alums!”).

It’s time for intellectual consistency. Legacy preferences are a bad idea. Racial preferences are a bad idea. Colleges should abandon both.