College-bound high school students do not always lose their chastity before graduation, but they certainly lose their innocence. Nearly every senior who has gone through the admissions mill can recount stories of peers with outstanding academic records—class valedictorians with stellar SATs and perfect GPAs—who were passed over by top colleges while others with far more modest credentials got the nod. The New York Times reports that Harvard turned down 1,100 applicants with perfect 800s on the math SAT this year. Yale rejected several with perfect 2400s on the three-part SAT exam. Princeton said no to thousands with 4.0 GPAs.
To many frustrated parents, one word de-scribes the admissions process at America’s elite universities: arbitrary. But that’s not the word admissions officials use, as I discovered two summers ago when I toured a dozen or so East Coast campuses with my son, a high school junior at the time. Asked what kind of grades and scores made kids competitive for their schools, officials in university after university insisted, as if reading off the same memo, that the review process was “holistic,” “comprehensive,” or “individualized.” Grades, we were repeatedly told, “are only one among many factors we consider.”
Another such factor is race. Nearly every selective college, public and private, gives a sizable edge to underrepresented minorities. Before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions criteria in Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), the school relied on a complicated rating system that awarded points for several personal and academic factors, including skin color. Black and Hispanic candidates automatically got 20 points. A great essay counted for only one point; a perfect SAT score, a mere 12.
But as Justice Clarence Thomas observed in his dissent in a companion case, race is not the only factor that distorts college admission decisions. “The entire [college admission] process is poisoned by numerous exceptions to ‘merit,’ ” he noted.
The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Golden exposes those other exceptions in his 2006 book The Price of Admission. Golden shows that elite schools routinely hand preferences to athletes; to the children of faculty, celebrities, and politicians; to “development cases” whose fabulously wealthy parents offer hefty donations up front; and, above all, to the offspring of alumni. Universities expect the parents of these “legacy” candidates to contribute to their coffers after their children are admitted.
Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, told Golden that at one Ivy League school only 40 percent of the seats are open to candidates competing on pure educational merit. According to a 2005 study by the Princeton sociologists Tom Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung, in 1997 nearly two-thirds of all these non-race-based preferences at elite universities benefited whites, even though whites comprised less than half of all applicants that year.
We have a vigorous national movement to eradicate racial or minority preferences, at least in public universities. In 2006 Michigan became the third state in the country after California and Washington to approve a ballot measure imposing a constitutional ban on the use of race in admissions at state-run schools and in government hiring decisions. And this year the author of all those bans—Ward Connerly, a black California businessman—is stepping up his crusade. He has launched petition drives in Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, and Arizona to put similar measures before voters in November.
But there’s no comparable effort to get rid of legacy preferences. Even more troubling, many prominent opponents of racial preferences greet suggestions to get rid of legacies, the mother of all preferences, with a perfunctory nod—or a gaping yawn.
It shouldn’t be that way. Legacy preferences are the original sin of admissions, the policy that fundamentally compromises fair, merit-based standards. Universities can’t in good conscience tip the admission scales for the more privileged and then ask the less privileged to compete solely on merit. What’s more, eliminating race while keeping legacies will make the admissions process less fair, not more fair, because it will open up minority slots to competition by whites but not vice versa.
Legacy preferences are an especially terrible idea for tax-supported public universities, since they make it possible for rich, white, and less qualified kids to take seats that are at least in part supported by the tax dollars of poor, minority families. Private schools, of course, should be free to admit whomever they want, and it is therefore tempting to ignore their use of legacies. But there are few genuinely private schools in America anymore, thanks to the enormous amount of federal funding they accept. And setting public policy aside: Just as a matter of propriety, should there be room for legacies at institutions that market themselves as bastions of meritocracy? The use of legacies by the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons of the world dilutes the standards of excellence they pretend not merely to uphold, but to embody.
Who Cares About Legacies?
With only a few exceptions, both the right and the left have ignored legacy preferences. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has promised to do everything in his power to end legacy admissions if he becomes president. But for the most part liberals have picked up the anti-legacy mantle only in retaliation against efforts to eliminate racial preferences. Local activists forced Texas A&M and the University of Georgia to abandon legacy preferences, for example, after these universities stopped using race in admissions. Otherwise, liberals seem quite willing to tolerate legacies, presumably because they make it easier to advocate countervailing preferences for their favored groups.
Given that dynamic, you might expect the opponents of racial preferences to go on the offensive against legacy preferences. But if liberals have been opportunistic about legacies, conservatives have been paralyzed.
In part, that’s because they’re genuinely divided on the issue. Ward Connerly, like Justice Thomas, regards legacies as a fundamental violation of a fair, merit-based standard. He prodded the University of California, where he is a regent, to abandon them in 2000, four years after California voters banned racial preferences. But Terry Pell, who heads the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), the outfit that engineered the lawsuit against the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions, has never fought against legacies. Neither has Stephan Thernstrom, who has co-authored several books attacking racial preferences. “Legacy is a far more complicated issue than race,” insists Thernstrom, who once served on Harvard’s admissions committee.
Conservatives in Pell and Thernstrom’s camp argue that racial discrimination is in a class apart, given this country’s history of slavery and segregation. What’s more, they say, legacy preferences are just not as big a problem as racial preferences, quantitatively speaking. Further, they produce huge benefits for universities that racial preferences don’t. Above all, to the extent that legacies are practiced by private rather than public universities, there are no easy or desirable legal cures that aren’t worse than the disease.
The last argument is their most powerful one, but it is hardly grounds for ignoring the issue. There are ways to address the issue of private universities’ legacy preferences—and racial preferences—that don’t involve lawsuits or government action. But the other arguments for why legacies aren’t a public policy problem are simply disingenuous and suffer from the same ideological blind spots that afflict defenders of racial preferences.