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Legacy Admissions: An Unworthy Tradition

Lately I've been interested in class and privilege, and how these issues play out in the academic sphere. So I hope no one will mind terribly if I talk a little bit about an op-ed I read last month by Evan J. Mandery, a professor at John Jay College, about legacy preferences in admission to top universities, and how the continuance of this policy undermines efforts to create diverse socio-economic communities at these schools.

Mandery explains that at schools like Harvard (his alma mater), where the acceptance rate is 5.9% for all applicants, the legacy acceptance rate is 30%--significantly better odds, equivalent to 160 additional points on a student's SATs. Are these students equally brilliant to their non-legacy peers, and thus worthy of admission independent of their parentage? Surely some are, yet at Harvard, the legacy admits' SAT scores were two points below the school average--not a huge discrepancy, to be sure. But one might expect the children of Harvard graduates, who had experienced every benefit that comes with having parents who've graduated from a top college, to perform at least as well as their peers without similar advantages.

Moreover, when as many Harvard students come from families whose income puts them in "the 1%" as do students in the two lower socio-economic quartiles, to continue admitting children of alums purely on the basis of their legacy status precludes anything approaching socio-economic heterogeneity. As Mandery points out--the incoming classes at elite colleges "look almost nothing like America."

I had always assumed that legacies were a necessary evil to promote fundraising. Not so, says Mandery. Top schools have ample endowments, and the continued stream of successful graduates put out by these schools ensures both their prestige and future contributions from successful alums. And, as Mandery points out, how many donations could universities potentially receive from non-legacy alums, who would give not to ensure the admission of their future children, but in gratitude at having been given a chance at a top-notch education?

The need to offer a chance to kids who don't come from the highest socio-economic brackets becomes all the more apparent when looking at statistics on graduation rates from top schools, as Paul Tough's excellent article in the NYTimes this past weekend explored. Tough explores the correlation between a student's family income and likelihood of graduation; students with SAT scores from 1000-1200 (on a 1600 scale) from the lowest economic quartile have only a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation, while students within the same range of SAT scores from the highest quartile have a 2 out of 3 chance. Such findings underscore the need for support--in admissions policies, in financial aid, in availability of academic tutoring--in order to give the brightest students from a diverse range of economic backgrounds equal chances to attend great schools. These efforts could begin with abolishing legacy-based admissions (certainly a good start), and include innovative programs to provide college awareness to a broader array of students, financial assistance, academic and social support--beginning from students' application to colleges, and culminating in their graduation four plus years later.

This issue is particularly resonant for me right now as I watch my own students in the inner-city school where I teach apply to and receive notice from colleges. Not a single one of our students has a legacy at a prestige school--yet another incalculable advantage that is unavailable to our kids--and in many cases over the years I've felt our students have under-reached in their applications; they've applied only to local schools (regardless of the students' grades or the schools' prestige), or shied away from applying to elite colleges with the attitude that it would be impossible that they'd ever receive enough financial aid to make it affordable. Our students need to be pushed out of their comfort zones; removing policies that place poor kids at a disadvantage when applying to elite colleges, and instituting ones that will afford them better chances to graduate, will certainly yield long-term dividends in the fight against systemic social inequality (despite what this guy says, which I only partially agree with, and will discuss another time).

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