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Legacy Preferences: Giving an Unfair Leg Up to the Wealthy?

Hard-working kids put together a college application with test scores, grades, essays, and lists of activities. While all those things matter, it doesn't hurt to mention your mom or dad happened to attend that school. It can boost your chances for admission by 20 percent. Is that fair?

Today, the issue was discussed at a forum in Washington, in conjunction with the release of the book Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, edited by Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Are legacy preferences immoral? Un-American? Or is the concern overblown? Academics, policy experts, and attorneys weighed in at the National Press Club, and the debate is sure to continue as the book makes the rounds.

"Legacy preferences are extensive and have considerable bite," said Kahlenberg. Nearly three-quarters of elite national institutions grant legacy preferences. And it's not just a tiebreaker. Research suggests that the weight is significant, adding the equivalent of 160 SAT points to a candidate's record.

The notion of getting preference because of your lineage is arguably "un-American," at odds with the fundamental design of our democracy, said Kahlenberg. Yet, interestingly, it is almost an entirely American tradition that is virtually unknown in other parts of the world.

Polls find that around 75 percent of Americans oppose legacy preferences. And some campuses, such as Texas A&M and the University of Arizona, are abandoning legacy preferences. Yet, legislative efforts to stop the practice have not been successful.

Legacy preferences hurt children of color, said John Brittain, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia Law School and a former chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. First-generation, minority students without a family history at a school miss out on the advantage, he said. While underrepresented minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges, they account for 6.7 percent of the legacy pool. "Legacy preference is the biggest affirmative action in the nation today—far more benefit from it than from racial or ethnic affirmative action," Brittain said.

Case law in the United States supports the concept that children should not be discriminated against or punished based on the birth or behavior of their parents, noted Steve Shadowen, an attorney with the law firm Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin. He suggested that legacy preferences are clearly unconstitutional as practiced at state universities.

Chad Coffman, the president of Winnemac Consulting, a Chicago-based research firm, studied the top 100 national universities from 1997 to 2007 to look at the impact of legacy preferences on alumni giving. Controlling for the size of the alumni population, wealth of the families and other factors, the study found that legacy preferences were not linked to increased donations—casting doubt on the financial justification for the practice.

What's really important to success is not what college you go to, but that you do go to college, said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University. "This is all nonsense," he said in his opening remarks. Students apply to many colleges, and if they don't get into one, they can go to another and still get a good education, he said.

All criteria used by an admissions officer are vulnerable, said Trachtenberg. Some say SAT tests are flawed, grade points averages differ by high school, and letters of recommendation are arbitrary. The process is "discretionary" and an effort is made to craft a class and create a community, said Trachtenberg. It's true that if someone benefits from legacy preferences, someone else loses, he said. But it's a matter of degree. Too much preference is not good, he said, but some is not a problem: "It's gray. It's not black and white. I don't see this as an absolute issue. It's not life and death."

Kahlenberg noted, however, that selective schools spend more money per student and have higher graduation rates. Research also shows that their graduates make more money, and 54 percent of leaders in corporate American and 42 percent of leaders in government come from 12 elite institutions. For a related issue brief on legacy preferences by Kahlenberg, click here.

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