John Edwards

Legacies of Injustice

Alumni preferences threaten educational equity--and no one seems to care.

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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.

A Small Problem?
Legacy preferences, like racial preferences, are repugnant because they reward not individual virtue or accomplishment, but an accident of birth that has no relevance for a college education. Moreover, just because they aren't linked with an egregious history of racial abuse does not justify turning a blind eye to them. India has a far uglier record of discrimination by caste than race. Yet no one would argue that it ought therefore to concentrate only on eradicating caste discrimination and treat race as a non-issue.

It is true that the use of legacies is mainly limited to undergraduate programs in the more selective public and private schools. Racial preferences, on the other hand, pervade every aspect of every school—from undergraduate and graduate admissions to faculty hiring and promotion. Moreover, according to a 2007 paper by Princeton's Douglas S. Massey and Margarita Mooney of data from 28 elite universities, while 77 percent of minorities had standardized test scores below the institutional average, about 48 percent of legacies did. In rare exceptions, such as Middlebury College, legacies actually scored higher than the institutional average.

How far below average do those legacies and minorities score? It's impossible to get up-to-date, nationwide data on the subject, given the universities' secrecy, but the late psychologist Richard Herrnstein and the social scientist Charles Murray reported one telling piece of information in their 1994 book The Bell Curve. In 1990, the average student admitted to Harvard scored 697 on the verbal SAT and 718 on the math section. By comparison, legacies scored 674 on verbal and 695 on math—a 47 point difference. Combined minority scores hover at about 100 to 150 points below the institutional average.

What's more, even when universities lower admission standards for legacies, they don't lower them as much as they do for minorities. As mentioned before, the Michigan point system used to award 20 bonus points to under-represented minorities—the equivalent of boosting a 3.0 GPA to a 4.0. By contrast, it handed only four points to children of alumni.

But such statistics don't tell the full story. Given how intense the competition is for the nation's most selective schools, even seemingly small differences in scores translate into significantly higher rates of acceptance for legacies over "unhooked" candidates—admissions lingo for those who don't qualify for any preferences.

According to the October 1996 Brown Alumni Magazine, 40 percent of legacy applicants were accepted to Brown University, as opposed to 19 percent of the total applicants. The Office of Civil Rights similarly found in 1990 that children of alumni were twice as likely to be accepted at Harvard over more qualified students who did not get legacy or athletic or any other preferences. And a study by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Virginia-based think tank, found that at the University of Virginia, after controlling for test scores, grades, and other academic credentials, a legacy candidate had 4.3 times higher odds of admission than non-legacy applicants in 1999.

Universities claim that legacy status is never a major or decisive factor in their admission decisions. It's only used, they say, as a tie-breaker among otherwise comparable candidates. That's what they claimed about racial preferences too, and that turned out to be false. Indeed, it is hard to really know how much weight universities award to legacies given their stubborn refusal to reveal their admissions data or even talk about their admission policies. (University of Michigan officials, for instance, declined repeated requests to discuss this issue.) But why do legacies deserve any edge, big or small?

Racial preferences, at least originally, were meant to remedy discrimination—both historic and current—against blacks. What is the justification for favoring the offspring of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alumni? Unlike many inner-city kids, they grow up in families with a strong pro-education ethos. They have access to the finest public or private high schools in the country. Their parents can spring for tutors, standardized test preparation courses, and even consultants to help them write essays and complete their college applications. "These are kids who grow up with every privilege," notes Connerly. "They don't deserve any additional advantage."

Moreover, though the policy of using legacy as a "tie-breaker" among equivalent candidates sounds innocuous, it has perverse consequences for one group in particular: Asian Americans. Asians don't benefit from racial preferences because they are not considered underrepresented minorities. And they don't benefit from legacy preferences because they tend to be the children of first-generation immigrants. Espenshade, the Princeton researcher, found that while legacy and athletic preferences offset the effects of racial preferences on whites, they compound them for Asian Americans.

According to Espenshade's regression analysis of data from a dozen selective colleges, on a 1600-point SAT scale, being black and Hispanic adds up to an advantage of 230 and 185 extra SAT points respectively. The preference for legacies translates into an edge of 160 points. By contrast, being Asian American represents a 50 SAT-point disadvantage.

The CIR's Pell, however, argues that the legacy problem is "self-correcting." Racial preferences have become so ideologically embedded that universities will never abandon them unless forced to by courts or voters, Pell maintains. But as the ethnic mix of the broader population changes so does the composition of the student body. A generation later, then, so will the composition of the beneficiaries of legacy preferences.

But the problem with legacies is not that they never adjust to shifting demographics. It is that they slow the process of adjustment. Legacy policies protect groups that are already in, at the expense of those that are trying to break in.

Practical Benefits?
Conservatives pride themselves on being sensible realists, not starry-eyed utopians eager to stamp out every form of social injustice regardless of consequences. This tendency partially explains their squishiness on the legacy issue. On the one hand, they don't dispute that legacy admissions border on institutionalized nepotism—rewarding children for the accomplishments of their parents and relatives. On the other hand, enforcing a strict merit-based standard seems a tad fanatical given all the practical benefits of legacy policies for universities.

One purported benefit is that legacies are an important source of funding for universities. Not only do more legacies donate to universities, they donate in greater amounts. For instance, according to the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia's student newspaper, 65 percent of legacy parents contributed to the university's 2006 capital campaign, compared with 41 percent of non-legacy parents. Moreover, legacy parents on average coughed up $34,759 each whereas non-legacy parents gave only $4,070.

All in all, legacies alone account for over 30 percent of the private donations to most elite colleges. "If mild preferences to legacy students allow universities to maximize their income, is that so objectionable?" asks Thernstrom.

Without such donations, universities claim, they could not invest in high-quality faculty and facilities and remain competitive. Even more important from the standpoint of social justice, universities say they couldn't maintain need-blind admission policies. These policies allow colleges to admit students purely on academic grounds—and then offer financial aid to anyone unable to afford the roughly $50,000 per year it costs in tuition and living expenses to attend a top-notch university these days. Without legacy contributions, such aid would supposedly become more difficult, and elite campuses would truly become playgrounds of the rich.

But Thernstrom and Pell don't buy arguments from social utility when it comes to racial preferences. Like other conservatives, they insist that universities that want to help inner-city minorities need to find race-neutral ways that don't selectively dilute academic standards for some groups. Nor do they believe that the educational benefits of a diverse student body are real or big enough to justify giving minorities a leg up.

Yet they uncritically accept the business and social case for legacy preferences. And it is far from clear that universities lack "legacy-neutral" tools to—as Thernstrom puts it—"maximize their profits." They could conceivably rake in more money by auctioning off a certain number of freshmen seats every year to the highest bidders. But elite universities would never entertain a scheme like that, because it could cost them their "elite" reputations. It would expose precisely how much they are diluting their admission standards for how many and for how much. This kind of information would erode their aura of selectivity—the very thing that makes them attractive to legacies and everyone else.

Connerly, after spending years on the University of California board, is not convinced that alumni will stop contributing to their alma maters if their kids don't get preferential treatment. Indeed, as Golden noted in The Price of Admission, Caltech is able to tap alumni money without offering any edge to their children. For instance, Caltech in 2001 obtained a $600 million pledge—the largest gift in the history of higher education at the time—from Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, neither of whose two sons attends the university. Caltech's commitment to high standards and excellence is a core part of its sales pitch to raise money from alumni and non-alumni alike.

Golden offers other examples, albeit isolated ones, of schools that have built sizable endowments through business strategies that don't rely on legacy preferences. Cooper Union, a highly prestigious and selective art school in New York that offers a free education to everyone admitted, for decades lived off income generated through its investments in real estate. Berea College, a small college in Kentucky exclusively targeted toward low-income kids, has accumulated a startlingly large endowment by making its progressive credentials a selling point to potential donors: It is the South's first inter-racial, co-educational college and was founded by an abolitionist minister. Its mission is to educate and uplift impoverished Appalachian families.

Legacy money doesn't seem to boost the presence of low-income kids on elite campuses by subsidizing their educations, either. The schools that get the most legacy money—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—are among the worst when it comes to the economic diversity of their students. In his 2005 book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel reported that among the top 40 schools, Prince­ton and Harvard are ranked at 38th and 39th, respectively, when it comes to such diversity, and Yale 25th.

For a contrast, look at Caltech. It is the nation's most meritocratic private university that eschews all preferences, and it is among the 10 most economically diverse schools. Nor is it hard to understand why. Admissions are a zero-sum game with many candidates vying for a finite number of seats. The crucial determinant of economic diversity on campus therefore becomes not how much largesse legacies expend on poor kids but how many seats they take away from them.

If elite colleges were serious about offering equitable access to genuinely talented students, they could find business models that don't involve legacy preferences. If they have not done so, it is because the government won't—and market forces can't—hold them accountable.

Is There Any Rationale for Legacies at Public Schools?
The core mission of taxpayer-funded public universities is not to conduct research, promote economic growth, or correct broader social problems. It is to expand higher education opportunities. That, at any rate, is what the general public believes: Respondents in a 2003 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education overwhelmingly picked "offering a general education to undergraduates" as the top priority among 21 different roles that public universities could play.

Taxpayers perceive different public universities as fulfilling this educational mission in different ways. They regard land-grant universities as catering to rural kids, urban universities to commuters who can't live on campus, community colleges to students not served by traditional four-year colleges.

There is something problematic, even oxymoronic, about the very idea of "elite" public univer­sities whose doors are by definition shut to the vast majority of taxpayers who fund them. If they must exist, they should exist to serve academically gifted kids. Thus the only defensible admission policy for these universities is one that allows all gifted kids an equal shot at admission.

This is precisely what legacy and other preferences don't allow. They reduce the fate of applicants to the discretion of admissions bureaucrats, eliminating clear-cut standards applied equally to all. Preferences replace the rule of law with the rule of men.

There are no good legal tools to mount court challenges against legacies in either public or private universities. The Constitution requires public entities to award everyone "equal protection under the law." But when a student tried to use this guarantee to mount a legal challenge against legacy preferences, she failed: In Rosenstock v. Governors of University of North Carolina (1976), an out-of-state applicant who was denied admission to the University of North Carolina argued that preferential treatment for in-state residents and children of alumni violated her right to equal protection. The court ruled that the state had no compelling interest in barring discrimination on the basis of alumni status, even at a public university.

But if the courts can't or won't ban legacy preferences, state voters certainly can. The simplest way to do so would be to append them to Connerly's ballot initiatives banning "race, gender, color, ethnicity, and national origin" preferences. Even the CIR's Pell acknowledges that it would be entirely appropriate for state voters to ban legacy preferences at public universities.

Connerly considered doing just that when drafting Proposition 2, the ballot amendment that banned racial preferences in Michigan in 2006. But he ultimately dropped the idea, he says, because constitutional amendments ought to be reserved for things that are "sacred for now and forever." He wasn't sure that alumni preferences were in that category.

But a further reason, some people close to Connerly admit, was that including legacies risked alienating whites in addition to blacks, making it harder to pass the initiatives. Strategically, it made more sense to deal with the two issues separately, reserving the ballot amendment process for race while looking for other ways to address legacies. Yet beyond Connerly's own personal crusade against what he calls "fat cat preferences" at the University of California, there has been almost no action on a national level against legacies.

If voter bans against legacies won't work, another way to force public universities to adhere to a stricter version of merit might be by requiring them to post—and adhere to—straightforward admission criteria like universities elsewhere in the world do.

For instance, Oxford, one of Britain's most prestigious universities, states unambiguously on its website precisely what scores and grades applicants need in order to gain admission. U.S. kids, it notes, need a combined SAT score of 2100 or a composite ACT score of 32 to 36—comparable to what kids from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland need. In order to remain true to its mission of creating an intellectually rigorous academic environment, Oxford, at least on paper, maintains the same admission standards for British students as for applicants from elsewhere. By contrast, it is accepted practice for elite American public universities to lower the bar for in-state students. To the extent that the tax contributions of the parents of these students fund the universities, they certainly deserve a break over out-of-state students. But that break ought to only involve lower tuition fees, not lower standards.

Openly publishing admissions criteria ensures transparency in the admissions process and serves as a sort of guarantee to prospective students that those who score below these minimum requirements won't be admitted ahead of those who do.

Connerly could use the contacts and machinery he has built in various states in the course of pursuing his anti–racial preferences amendments to push admission reform laws requiring public universities to set open and objective admissions standards. Universities will no doubt wail about the loss of academic freedom. But the rule of settled and transparent laws is no loss to freedom. It would only hem in the discretionary power of bureaucrats who wield it in an arbitrary way to offer access for their own self-serving purposes.

What About Market Forces?
There is a strong civil libertarian argument against applying such laws to private universities. Such schools ought to be allowed to admit whomever they want for whatever reason they want, as part of their right of voluntary association. Some schools might exercise this right for pernicious ends. But just as tolerating odious speech is essential for the sake of protecting broader freedoms, so, arguably, is tolerating odious forms of voluntary association.

This thinking has restrained conservatives from challenging racial preferences at private schools, even though they have powerful legal tools to do so. For instance, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars racial discrimination by any school that receives federal funds—a category that includes practically every private university given the ubiquity of federal research grants, scholarship aid, student loan guarantees, and countless other forms of direct and indirect financial assistance. Yet Michael Greve, former executive director of CIR, told the ABA Journal some years ago that his organization had no plans to go after private universities for racial preferences—a policy that his successor, Terry Pell, also adheres to. If Harvard, Stanford, and Yale want to discriminate for any reason, Greve said, that's their business.

It is conceivable that laws requiring public universities to set open and objective admission standards might help trigger industry-wide change, including at private schools. But why hasn't the higher education industry reformed its own admission practices? The market appeal of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton rests on the impression that getting through their door puts you in a league of intellectual superstars. If these schools dilute their standards—if they turn away incandescent intellects in favor of the merely bright with good family connections—how are they still able to maintain their luster? In a functioning marketplace, you would expect more Caltechs to emerge: Elite schools that market their uncompromising adherence to standards of excellence to snag students interested in being part of a true meritocracy. In the process, they would force Harvard and others to either reform their admission practices or relinquish their niche.

So far, instead of elite schools losing their niche, smart kids are losing their shot at an elite education. "Higher education is the only industry that is rewarded for turning away customers," observes Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University.

There are both demand and supply reasons for this peculiar state of affairs. The demand for colleges with established reputations is artificially inflated, notes Vedder, because of the absence of any meaningful metrics of educational quality, leaving students with nothing but the prestige factor to go by. Meanwhile, instead of accommodating this demand by expanding their supply, colleges have every incentive to ignore it: Their ranking in the annual U.S. News and World Report college ratings depends in large part on their "selectivity"—on what percentage of applicants they reject.

U.S. News' near-exclusive focus on inputs rather than outcomes when ranking universities perverts the admissions process in an even more direct way. One of the factors in its ranking is the extent of alumni giving, which is supposed to indicate alumni satisfaction with the education they received. Though this sounds reasonable, in practice it hands universities one more incentive to dole out more legacy preferences to shake down its alumni—and avoid a search for less compromising fundraising alternatives.

If market forces seem unable to hold elite universities accountable, it is because prospective students don't have good information about their educational outcomes to truly gauge whether these colleges are worth six figures. "Competition succeeds only to the extent that customers…can define success in some legitimate way in order to establish a standard and reward those who best achieve it," Derek Bok, Harvard's president from 1971 to 1991, has noted. "In education, at least at the university level, this ability is lacking."

So what did Bok—whose wife, the philosopher Sissela Bok, has written an entire book decrying institutional secrecy—do to make more information available to "customers" as Harvard president? Nothing. In fact, he tenaciously resisted repeated calls to reveal Harvard's admissions and other data.

Bok's reaction is typical. In 2003, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) tried to pass a mandate requiring both public and private universities to reveal their admissions data and show how many legacies they were admitting. Political pressure from universities killed the plan. Earlier this year, they opposed the recommendations of a commission convened by Education Secretary Margaret Spelling. The commission wanted all universities to report, among other things, their graduation and retention data.

Vedder, an ardent free-market advocate who served on that commission, is sympathetic to concerns about extending the government's reach into private universities. But he also argues that these universities are only nominally private, given the enormous amount of federal research subsidies and student aid they receive. "If we are going to drop planeloads of money to these universities," he asks, "why is it unreasonable to require them to report some basic information?"

Can Meritocracy Prevail?
Universities resist not just outside efforts to force more transparency, but also efforts from within the industry itself. Over the last decade, two serious efforts have emerged in the higher education marketplace to measure "outcomes"—the quality of education that colleges provide. In 2000, the Pew Charitable Trust and Indiana University launched the annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which polls students about their college experience and, based on this feedback, ranks each college against its peers. Meanwhile, the Council for Aid to Education has developed the Collegiate Learning Assessment survey (CAL). While the NSSE measures only subjective student opinions about their college experience, the CAL actually offers extensive exit exams to students to measure what they have actually learned.

Making information about student satisfaction and learning available to consumers might revolutionize the way they make decisions about colleges. But elite colleges, having little incentive to have their reputation questioned by actual data, have refused to participate in either survey.

America's fundamental promise is that individuals ought to control their destiny through hard work and talent, not arbitrary accidents of birth. Legacy preferences are no less damaging to this promise than racial preferences. Those who oppose race as a factor in admissions but ignore legacies open themselves to accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy. But, worse, to the extent that they succeed in dismantling race while leaving legacies intact, they risk putting in place a less—not more—fair admissions system.

As their battle against racial preferences heats up this year, they need to open another front against legacy preferences. The U.S. Constitution and courts do not offer ready weapons for the new battle. But that hardly justifies laying down arms without a fight.

There are plenty of ways at the state level to stop the use of legacies at public universities, from constitutional bans to state mandates requiring more transparent admission policies. Government can't ban private universities from using preferences, legacy or racial or any other, without running afoul of the Constitution. But that doesn't mean that moral suasion can't be used to prod them toward fairer admissions policies. Public outrage recently forced Harvard to give up its early decision program. The program, which overwhelmingly benefited the rich and connected, effectively lowered the bar for students who applied early and promised to accept its admission offer.

Most of all, we need policies to strengthen market accountability. We need to end the cartel-like character of the higher education industry, where private universities can keep consumers in the dark about their admission practices and educational product and still charge exorbitant prices without worrying that a competitor will emerge to challenge their market dominance with a cheaper and better product. An honest and straightforward recognition of the dangers of legacy preferences will go a long way toward bringing about such reforms.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation.

NEXT: Exoneration in Michigan

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  1. Hummer. Hybrid.

  2. Props to the author for her philosphical consistency.

  3. “…while legacy and athletic preferences offset the effects of racial preferences on whites, they compound them for Asian Americans.”

    This is true and there’s more. Preferences do not offset but rather compound the effects of racial and other preferences on poor whites as well. Legacy preferences only help whites whose parents went to college.

    This fact reflects another legacy – namely the legacy of the Democrat’s ongoing betrayal of poor whites that began in the 60’s.

  4. But how would George Bush, John Kerry, and so on get to go to Yale/Harvard/etc?

    Can’t somebody think of the rich children?

  5. What I think Ms Dalmia fails to take proper account of is the extent to which the very small number of selective, state supported universities at issue here are de facto privatizing, in significant measure because the states no longer support them, and the extent to which legally private schools rely more and more heavily on public (i.e., tax) funds.

    Whether the latter situation suffices morally to make a case why otherwise “private” schools should act in what is obviously contrary to their financial interests is one thing. But the former, especially where state support constitutes 20% or less of the “public” school’s budget, undercuts the notion that equal justice under law somehow demands the elimination of legacy admissions, especially if the net results are, in fact, reduced costs to the taxpayers.

  6. This fact reflects another legacy – namely the legacy of the Democrat’s ongoing betrayal of poor whites that began in the 60’s.

    Wait, wait,… nope, I still don’t see it. Please break it down for me.

  7. Contra NCDan, most upper-tier universities’ admissions departments go out of their way to admit poor white people, especially if they come from poor, geographically under-represented areas of the country. A kid from rural West Virginia will leave tire tracks across the back of a kid from Long Island with the same grades and test scores, so that the university can brag about the economic and geographic diversity of its students.

    There is even less of an effort to end this practice than to end legacy admissions. Which is as it should be – diverse campuses are better campuses, across just about all axes.

  8. While I agree that it is distasteful for schools that receive public funds to admit less qualified applicants for what ever reason, how upset are we to get that schools are acting rationally given their circumstances? If they are using a suboptimal admittance strategy, they will stop being top tier schools.

    Also, I hear that people who didn’t get into ivy league schools occasionally lead productive, happy lives.

    Gan

  9. Cooper Union is not just an art school – it also has engineering and architecture schools. In fact, its architecture school is one of the most selective in the world (something like 6%, they have like 30 students a year), and the engineering students comprise over half of the ~800 undergrads there.

  10. You can tweak racial preferences, you can tweak around with admissions for poor people, you can tweak a lot of stuff, but one thing we all know: don’t mess with the money.

    If legacy admissions bring in that much money, it will never change.

  11. This is an excellent article, so naturally I’ll only talk about the parts I don’t agree with. “Private” colleges and universities are non-profit corporations, that is, “artificial persons” who owe their existence to the state. The laws defining what a non-profit (or a profit) can or cannot do are entirely at the discretion of the state legislature. Not many people would argue that Harvard has, or should have, the “right” to exclude blacks or Jews. The state of Massachusetts could set the rules for accepting students used by all educational institutions within its borders if it wanted to, but of course the political pressure against such action would be overwhelming.

    Anyone who is smart and hardworking and comes from a middle-class family can get an excellent education in the U.S. The elite colleges sell status as much as anything else. Enter Harvard and you enter a world of privilege. One of those privileges is getting a leg up to sending your kids to Harvard. If the rules for getting into a prestige university were cut and dried, the mystique would be lost. You’d be smart, but you wouldn’t be special.

    The argument against legacy admissions is an excellent stick with which to beat conservatives, who believe that policies that give poor black kids “unfair” assistance are bad but that policies that give rich white kids “unfair” assistance are good. But the liklihood of change is practically nil.

  12. Gan,

    I think the author’s point is fraud. Top schools publicly claim to be meritocratic (a reputation for excellence is based on that claim) but they secretly act otherwise. If they disclosed admissions policies, your argument would be strong.

    Viz., if the glossy brochures said: “We take a many top 5% applicants, those few asians with perfect scores, mix in a fat cadre of spolied bluebloods (with President Bush IQs), add some middling athletes who can read and write, and then fill in the gaps with “articulate” upper class minorities and 1 poor white kid from each & every fly-over state (such as West VA). DIVERSITY IS POWER!

  13. LOL, Mr. Grand!

    “And this year’s Wyoming admission to Yale is…”

    *rip rip rip*

    “Vern Inglewood! Mr. Inglewood, come up here and say a few words.”

  14. Shikha Dalmia, Thank you for an excellent article. I have long railed against legacy admissions.

    One reason is that they extend the results of past discriminative practices. We’re not bigots anymore, but the descendants of those who had an undeserved advantage reap the benefits of past immoral practices. Another is who was rejected by Yale so that GW Bush could get a slot? That is just the most famous example that comes to mind. Similar injustices happen with every freshman class in every college/university that gives legacy preferences.

    From the article –

    Legacy preferences, like racial preferences, are repugnant because they reward not individual virtue or accomplishment, but an accident of birth that has no relevance for a college education.

    That’s damned tough to argue with.

    Universities claim that legacy status is never a major or decisive factor in their admission decisions. It’s only used, they say, as a tie-breaker among otherwise comparable candidates.

    I call bullshit.

    “These are kids who grow up with every privilege,” notes Connerly. “They don’t deserve any additional advantage.”

    Born on third base and think they hit a triple.

    There is something problematic, even oxymoronic, about the very idea of “elite” public univer?sities whose doors are by definition shut to the vast majority of taxpayers who fund them. If they must exist, they should exist to serve academically gifted kids. Thus the only defensible admission policy for these universities is one that allows all gifted kids an equal shot at admission.

    There is this whole equal treatment under the law thingee that needs to be addressed. Just as children are not held responsible for the crimes of their parents, they should not be given credit for the successes of their parents.

    IMHO, if you are against racial preferences you morally should be equally against legacy preferences.

    Sorry for the lenght of the post, but I’m a bit passionate about the issue.

  15. I second J sub D on his call of bullshit for the reasons Paul pointed out above.

  16. DAR makes a good point about how private schools are accepting a lot of public funds and public schools are segueing toward more private revenue sources. Even the more heavily state-supported state schools sometimes have private foundations associated with them to ease the revenue situation.

    On the east coast, for some of the old elite schools the public-private line is even murkier. Some of the departments and programs at Cornell are state-supported and considered part of a public university, while others are considered private. Duke also has some sort of murky relationship with the state, I believe. (Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.)

    Invoking public and/or private status won’t get you very far in untangling issues in higher education. It’s more complicated than that.

  17. J sub D, I’m not going to push this very far because I sympathize with your and the author’s points. But, it would be fraud if the Universities advertised a “numbers-based” enrollment process as apposed to the “holistic”, blah, blah, policy that thee espouse.

  18. This is a bit misleading.

    The Center for Individual Rights, which Dalmia chides for not opposing legacy preferences, effectively did so in its Supreme Court briefs challenging the University of Michigan racial preferences, as Lars Bader’s letter to the editor in the Washington Post noted at the time.

    It argued that under the Supreme Court’s “narrow tailoring” requirement for race preferences, those preferences couldn’t be used except as a last resort, after race-neutral means of increasing minority admissions — like getting rid of alumni preferences or legacy preferences — were first employed.

    If accepted (as it logically should have been), that argument would have resulted in virtually every selective college in America (that wanted to use race even a little) getting rid of its legacy preferences in order to satisfy this requirement.

    CIR made this argument indirectly, of course, because federal law itself doesn’t directly outlaw legacy preferences; it only bans racial discrimination.

    (And Title VI and Section 1981 — the statutes used to challenge university racial preferences — only forbid intentional racial discrimination, not practices that might have a disparate impact, like legacy preferences, see Alexander v. Sandoval (2001) (Title VI not violated by disparate impact)).

  19. If I went to a particular university and devoted my time, work, money and energy to that school, I’m sorry but my kid should get in over yours (assuming that our kids are otherwise identical). It’s called customer loyalty — we were loyal to a University, and this is one way they demonstrate loyalty to their alumni base. When I send donations to my alma mater, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have, to some extent, my children in mind when writing the checks. Money can’t buy you happiness, but the last time I checked it could buy you an education.

    On a side note, when going through the college application process I was told by a well-known University that they “do not offer merit-based scholarships.” My friend and I (who had lower test scores, fewer extracurriculars and a lower GPA) were both accepted. He went, and I did not. Why? Because the school gave him a full scholarship, not because of his merit, not because of his financial inability to pay for tuition, but because… one of his parents was Hispanic.

  20. When I send donations to my alma mater, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have, to some extent, my children in mind when writing the checks. Money can’t buy you happiness, but the last time I checked it could buy you an education.

    That’s a fair point. They’re selling a product, and if they want to base access on a sliding scale of academic merit and ability to pay (i.e. less meritorious applicants can pay a higher price and vice versa), rather than treating them as distinct categories (i.e. you must meet the standard criteria AND you must pay the set price), well, fair enough.

    But that would be more about donor preferences than alumni preferences.

  21. i’m wondering what makes legacies in colleges different than legacies in the real world.

    maybe (private) colleges prefer well-connected individuals in their ranks for the same reasons businesses do and they’re willing to overlook academia when bill clinton is their daddy. i’m not gonna lie: i’ve gotten every job i’ve ever had because i’ve had a friend working at the company.

    you can fix legacy preferences in colleges, but i’m just wondering what good it will do if the rest of the world doesn’t – or is incapable to – operate without preferences.

    meritocracy’s reward hard workers and that’s great, but they assume that hard work is all that matters to people.

  22. so many grammar errors… but let me self-correct “meritocracies.”

  23. Not many people would argue that Harvard has, or should have, the “right” to exclude blacks or Jews.

    Just because there arent many of those people doesnt mean that that small number of people arent correct.

  24. Both legacies and racial preferences serve the ends of colleges by reinforcing the delusion that getting into a better school equals having a better life. Unjust as they are, the first solution is for us to question the basic assumptions behind elite institutions and ask how much of the quality of their grads is a product of the institutions rather than of the students themselves.

    Let’s start with the law students who found themselves at Harvard Law (et al.) after Katrina. What effect did accidentally getting into an elite school have on them? Pity we can’t have a matching group of Ivy League students sent to a forth tier school. It would be amusing to see them excel.

  25. “But that break ought to only involve lower tuition fees, not lower standards.”

    Good article generally, but with respect to in-state vs out-of-state students, here’s the problem at Michigan. The university commits to the legislature to a particular percentage of in-state students. Yes, the U could charge more tuition and get somewhat higher SAT scores if it admitted more out-of-state students, BUT then the Michigan legislature would cut its funding (and reasonably so — if the tax dollars aren’t paying to educate in-state students, why should the legislature pay up?)

    From time to time, there have been discussions of Michigan going semi-private — accepting no funds from the legislature for operating expenses and charging equal in-state and out-of-state tuition, but those discussions have never gone very far.

  26. um.. don’t in-state students always pay lower tuition than out-of-staters?

  27. The real problem isn’t capricious admissions policies, the real problem is the associated grade inflation that puts a meritorious veneer over the capricious admission policies.

  28. Is Ms. Dalmia worried that employers are too stupid to understand the bullshit and fall head-over-heels in love with the job applicant with “Harvard” on their resume?

  29. “Let’s start with the law students who found themselves at Harvard Law (et al.) after Katrina. What effect did accidentally getting into an elite school have on them? Pity we can’t have a matching group of Ivy League students sent to a forth tier school. It would be amusing to see them excel.”

    I’m willing to bet GW Bush (a C- student at Yale) doesn’t pass at a state school (any state school) if no one knows his Daddy was who is Daddy was. He’s that dumb.

  30. Is Ms. Dalmia worried that employers are too stupid to understand the bullshit and fall head-over-heels in love with the job applicant with “Harvard” on their resume?

    As someone with Harvard on my resume, I have the feeling I should be offended.

  31. you can fix legacy preferences in colleges, but i’m just wondering what good it will do if the rest of the world doesn’t – or is incapable to – operate without preferences.

    Neptism is supposed to be illegal for government employment. Except in Detroit, of course.

  32. May I remind you all that even delta house put limits on legacy admissions:

    Hoover: Kent is a legacy, Otter. His brother was a ’59, Fred Dorfman.
    Flounder: He said legacies usually get asked to pledge automatically.
    Otter: Oh, well, usually. Unless the pledge in question turns out to be a real closet-case.
    Otter, Boon: Like Fred.

  33. I tend to think legacy admission is inappropriate at public universities, but I think private ones should be able to do what they want.

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to attempt to impose a single definition of “merit” on private associations.

    After all, look at the example employed by posters here of Bush and Kerry. Exactly how is it sensible for an admissions board to not admit a future President of the United States and a future Senator from Massachusetts? I’m sure in any given year every college makes a few bad bets and admits some deadbeats. How can we possibly argue that admitting a future President of the United States is one of the errors?

    What I personally think of Bush isn’t relevant. Whether he got to the Presidency based on family connections is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that you’re asking an admissions board to not admit a future President of the United States on your say-so about who they should admit.

    Harvard and Yale aren’t selling the claim that they admit the “best” students. Harvard and Yale are selling the claim that if you go there, you will be surrounded by the people who will run the country. So far they don’t seem to be lying.

  34. How can we possibly argue that admitting a future President of the United States is one of the errors?

    My alma mater admitted Jimmy Carter. However, we sent him packing to the Naval Academy after one year.

  35. The biggest myth is that race and ethnic background lend greater “diversity” and “cultural richness” to the campus environment. A U.C. racial minorities are sometimes admitted to an academic environment whose standard are too high for them, and they struggle to keep up. The have little time and energy to contribute to that mythical abstraction called “diversity.”

  36. I shouldn’t talk, I guess. My alma mater graduated Dondero. But, maybe they were trying to reach their molesterstache quota.

  37. Great article. Dalmia is right to make the point that those who criticize racial preferences should be equally critical of legacies.

    From my experience, though, affirmative action doesn’t work quite the same way in practice that some folks think. Minorities at my (fancy schmancy) alma mater weren’t at all “struggling to keep up.” For the most part they went to excellent high schools (either because they’re affluent or because of programs like Prep for Prep). A surprisingly large number of the “black” students were Africans or children of African immigrants. So, as an engine of social mobility, affirmative action doesn’t work so well; but by the same token I also don’t think it’s letting in a flood of underqualified students.

  38. How can we possibly argue that admitting a future President of the United States is one of the errors?

    When that future President of the United States is George W. Bush, how can we possibly deny it is one of their errors?

    Nuculer.

  39. How the hell did Harvard know, way back in the 60s, that George W. Bush was going to be president?

  40. Baloney. Virtually every school, public and private, puts a legacy applicant’s file at the top of the stack. And why not? If private patrons wish to subsidize their alma mater, stay involved, and essentially buy preferential treatment, doesn’t this leave the possibility of saving tax money in end?

    Consider also that it just may be the case that standardized test scores are attempts to put a number on personal attributes that can’t be described very well in such terms. Seeing that an applicant was reared by a parent who previously succeeded in that educational setting offers at least a reasonable belief that an otherwise borderline applicant may fit the mold after all.

    Let’s not worship at the altar of centralized, standardized testing at the expense of a more basic bet on nature and nurture. Individual schools are unique entities, and I think it is a pretty good bet that there are widely varying schools that sit right next to each other in terms of admissions demographics. Information, like legacy status, give admissions officers some much-needed “real world” data with which to better make admissions selections. Finding a good fit for a particular school is more important than a one-size-fits-all, egalitarian admissions policy that has the force of law.

    Rather than bailing out the Titanic, libertarians should fight to privatize public universities. Transferring control of public universities to non-profit foundations for administration and development would be one fiscally responsible escape that would allow us to avoid the socialist calculation problem altogether. Simply implementing some “more libertarian” centrally-planned admissions standard is not going to fix Socialist U. Once we move schools to a private, competitive environment, we can allow the experts in the market to experiment and devise the best admissions policies for their individual enterprises.

  41. I just found this site and this was the first article I happened to read. I am in absolute 100% agreement with the author. Colleges should base entrance on merit and they should disclose their admissions policies.

    BTW, I once worked as a software engineer for a company were all the top level MBA managers were graduates of Stanford. If you didn’t graduate from Standford you get hired. Therefore, legacy graduates received another benefit over commoners.

  42. “while 77 percent of minorities had standardized test scores below the institutional average, about 48 percent of legacies did. In rare exceptions, such as Middlebury College, legacies actually scored higher than the institutional average.”

    Uhh – if 48% of legacies scored less than average, then 52% scored higher than average. It’s not a rare exception when it is the rule.

  43. One reason is that they extend the results of past discriminative practices. We’re not bigots anymore, but the descendants of those who had an undeserved advantage reap the benefits of past immoral practices.

    Does this reasoning extend to legacy admissions in historically-black universities?

  44. so this “libertarian” author doesn’t like practices of private insitutions in a free society…hmmm..ok…so?…if they don’t change their ways what is the author going to do about it?…probably,evetually.. resort to the state…..she should probably start rereading libertarian philosophy

  45. “Uhh – if 48% of legacies scored less than average, then 52% scored higher than average. It’s not a rare exception when it is the rule.”

    I assumed 5% (or more) of the legacies earned the average score, meaning 47% of ’em [or less] scored above aver.

  46. IMHO, if you are against racial preferences you morally should be equally against legacy preferences.

    Sorry for the lenght of the post, but I’m a bit passionate about the issue.

    JsD, Excellent post. I agree 100%, and I am also passionate about the issue. The very idea that GWB pushed a deserving, but not connected kid to the curb just makes my blood boil.

    The only “diversity” that produces “strength” is that produced by the diverse thinking of the best minds.

  47. How can we possibly argue that admitting a future President of the United States is one of the errors?

    How can you possibly argue that a college admissions board knows who will win the presidency twenty years hence?

    All you are saying is, “Colleges should be allowed to select connected kids because they are connected.” How is that any different than saying, “Colleges should be allowed to select (black, white, blonde, brunett, whatever; take your pick) kids because they are ….”?

    If your point is that private colleges should be allowed to select on whatever criteria they choose, that is cool with me, but they should not receive a dime of tax-payer’s money.

  48. Legacy admissions can be defended in private colleges (and in public colleges with stingy legislatures). If you’re relying on alumni contributions, it would be nice to offer the alumni some reasons to contribute.

    Colleges ask for money from alumni on the basis of “loyalty” (hence the term “loyalty fund”). But as I see it, loyalty is a two-way street. If the college gives no special consideration to the alumni, why should the alumni give special consideration to the college? If Swank U were to tomorrow tell its rich alums that it won’t give any special consideration to alumni kids, then the alums could reply – “We applaud your commitment to social justice! And to match your commitment, we’re taking the money we were going to donate to you, and we’ll give it to the United Negro College Fund instead.”

  49. How is rewarding a high school senior whose parents attended the same college they’re applying to “social justice”? Especially if they’re applying to the overall majority of schools that are partly funded by (of course their, and) other people’s tax dollars? Buying your son or daughter’s acceptance into a university does not sound like a proud moment to me. I did not go to college so I could be surrounded by the results of Mom and Dad’s (however well-intentioned) donations. This article is one of the most consistent, logical reads I’ve found on this site.

  50. A kid from rural West Virginia will leave tire tracks across the back of a kid from Long Island with the same grades and test scores, so that the university can brag about the economic and geographic diversity of its students.

    Tire tracks is a bit much. The advantage exists, but the size is considerably smaller than the racial or legacy advantages, as demonstrated in various studies. (Enough so that if the kid from Long Island is very wealthy but black, he will have a big advantage over the poor rural white.)

    Here’s another call for ending legacies at public universities by North Carolina’s libertarian/conservative Pope Center, linked off of a National Review blog today.

  51. “artificial persons” who owe their existence to the state.

    Uh, all corporations are ‘artificial persons’ — just try collecting a debt owned by a bankrupt corporation from its board or stock-holders and you’ll quickly realize that. And of course all corporations are regulated by the state, as they are creations of the state.

    As to the article — I see ethnic resentment first and foremost. For private universities especially, it seems to me sensible that they should be able to reward those who have helped build the institution, even if only by studying there. Indeed, I think it is ridiculous that WASPs are now a minority at the great universities their cultural and biological ancestors built — and I speak as a non-WASP.

    Shikha Dalmia obviously wants her offspring to free-ride on all those centuries of social capital built up by people not of her ethnic group. If she was really a go-getter, she would get her group – I am guessing Indian – together and start their own university, like we catholics did with Georgetown, Notre Dame etc and Americans Jews did with Brandeis.

  52. How the hell did Harvard know, way back in the 60s, that George W. Bush was going to be president?

    Because the Illuminati had marked him at while he was a Bonesman.

  53. You can’t be ‘hurt’ by a benefactor giving something to another person, whatever the reason. You still have everything you had before that transaction. The issue here is that people consider their admission to a University by trying to find a cash value for it. As Nietzche predicted:

    “We have now an opportunity of watching the manifold growth of the culture of a society of which commerce is the soul, just as personal rivalry was the soul of culture among the ancient Greeks, and war, conquest, and law among the ancient Romans. The tradesman is able to value everything without producing it, and to value it according to the requirements of the consumer rather than his own personal needs. “How many and what class of people will consume this?” is his question of questions. Hence, he instinctively and incessantly employs this mode of valuation and applies it to everything, including the productions of art and science, and of thinkers, scholars, artists, statesmen, nations, political parties, and even entire ages: with respect to everything produced or created he inquires into the supply and demand in order to estimate for himself the value of a thing. This, when once it has been made the principle of an entire culture, worked out to its most minute and subtle details, and imposed upon every kind of will and knowledge, this is what you men of the coming century will be proud of, — if the prophets of the commercial classes are right in putting that century into your possession! But I have little belief in these prophets. Credat Judaeus Apella — to speak with Horace.”

    Going to a University is not about maximizing the net money you receive based on having attended it. The university system predates capitalism, and therefore was only later shaped by it’s method of evaluating utility. Universities see themselves as places to further human knowledge. Universities need donations of cash to do this. A good way to encourage donations is to have legacy admissions. The best and the brightest very often get an opportunity to attend any college because some rich moron is paying both their own and several other peoples worth of tuition. So to say it is unjust is simply someone crying over nothing.

  54. The article makes some very good points against both legacy- and race-based admissions. But I don’t see why she lumps athletes together with minorities or legacy admissions.

    The author writes that “America’s fundamental promise is that individuals ought to control their destiny through hard work and talent, not arbitrary accidents of birth.”

    Don’t great athletes get where they are through “hard work and talent” (in other words–merit)?

    It’s one thing to say that nonmerit-based factors shouldn’t count in admissions. It’s another thing entirely to say that nothing but grades and SAT scores can determine a person’s merit.

  55. I have no problem with a 100% privately funded college giving special privilege in admissions to children of alumni. That said, the only college to fit that description is Bob Jones University. Therefore, they are arbitrary and I’m against them. However, I have no problem with colleges, even publicly funded ones, giving admission preference to the children of donors, provided the value of the donation exceeds the net costs incurred by the college in educating their kids.

  56. Sorry Tale of UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Office: easily grasped by the public, lost on University of California’s President Yudof. The UC Berkley budget gap has grown to $150 million, & still the Chancellor is spending money that isn’t there on $3,000,000 consultants. His reasons range from the need for impartiality to requiring the consultants “thinking, expertise, & new knowledge”.
    Does this mean that the faculty & management of UC Berkeley ? flagship campus of the greatest public system of higher education in the world – lack the knowledge, integrity, impartiality, innovation, skills to come up with solutions? Have they been fudging their research for years? The consultants will glean their recommendations from faculty interviews & the senior management that hired them; yet $ 150 million of inefficiencies and solutions could be found internally if the Chancellor & Provost Breslauer were doing the work of their jobs (This simple point is lost on UC’s leadership).
    The victims of this folly are Faculty and Students. $ 3 million consultant fees would be far better spent on students & faculty.
    There can be only one conclusion as to why inefficiencies & solutions have not been forthcoming from faculty & staff: Chancellor Birgeneau has lost credibility & the trust of the faculty & Academic Senate leadership (C. Kutz, F. Doyle). Even if the faculty agrees with the consultants’ recommendations – disagreeing might put their jobs in jeopardy – the underlying problem of lost credibility & trust will remain. (Context: greatest recession in modern times)
    Contact your representatives in Sacramento: tell them of the hefty self-serving $’s being spent by UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau & Provost Breslauer.
    Let there be light!

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