By Evan J. Mandery, The Opinion Pages, Op-Ed Contributor, April 24, 2014, New York Times •
SOMEONE reading about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action — and by extension similar measures passed by voters in California, Texas, Florida and Washington — might develop the misimpression that affirmative action is on the wane. In fact, it’s alive and well: Public and private colleges routinely give preferential treatment to children of alumni.
If you have kids, or plan on having them someday, you know that acceptance rates at elite colleges are at historic lows. Stanford led the stingy pack, admitting but 5 percent of applicants, with Harvard and Yale trailing close behind at 5.9 percent and 6.3 percent respectively.
For “legacies,” the picture isn’t nearly so bleak. Reviewing admission data from 30 top colleges in the Economics of Education Review, the researcher Michael Hurwitz concluded that children of alumni had a 45 percent greater chance of admission. A Princeton team found the advantage to be worth the equivalent of 160 additional points on an applicant’s SAT, nearly as much as being a star athlete or African-American or Hispanic.
At Harvard, my alma mater, the legacy acceptance rate is 30 percent, which is not an unusual number at elite colleges. That’s roughly five times the overall rate.
The disparity is so great it makes the most sense to conceptualize college applications to elite colleges as two separate competitions: one for children whose parents are legacies, the other for children whose parents aren’t.
Admissions officers will hasten to tell you that in a meritocracy many legacies would get in anyway. Let’s pause to consider the usefulness of the term “meritocracy” in a system where the deck is stacked at every level in favor of rich, white students before conceding the premise. It’s surely true that many children of alumni are brilliant, hard-working and deserving of a seat at a top college. That’s quite different from saying the system is fair. In 2003, Harvard’s admissions dean said that the SAT scores of legacy admits were “just two points below the school’s overall average.” These are students who have enjoyed a lifetime of advantage. We’d expect them to have outperformed nonlegacies, at least by a bit, and yet they’ve done slightly worse.
Reasonable minds can differ on the morality and wisdom of race-based affirmative action. Where I teach, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is about as egalitarian as institutions come, I’ve seen firsthand what the data show: College is a ticket out of poverty, and exposing young men and women to diverse classmates and role models raises the ceiling on what they believe is possible for themselves. That said, I acknowledge the desire for a colorblind, meritocratic society as an honorable position. But how can anyone defend making an exception for children of alumni?
One needn’t have a dog in this hunt to be troubled by legacy. It’s disastrous public policy. Because of legacy admissions, elite colleges look almost nothing like America. Consider these facts: To be a 1 percenter, a family needs an annual income of approximately $390,000. When the Harvard Crimson surveyed this year’s freshman class, 14 percent of respondents reported annual family income above $500,000. Another 15 percent came from families making more than $250,000 per year. Only 20 percent reported incomes less than $65,000. This is the amount below which Harvard will allow a student to go free of charge. It’s also just above the national median family income. So, at least as many Harvard students come from families in the top 1 percent as the bottom 50 percent. Of course this says nothing of middle-class families, for whom private college is now essentially unaffordable.
These facts will trouble any parent of modest means, but it’s time to recognize this as an American problem. Together with environmental destruction, social inequality is the defining failure of our generation. The richest .01 percent of American families possess 11.1 percent of the national wealth, but 22 percent of American children live in poverty.
There are only two ways this gets better. One is a huge reformation of the tax structure. The other is improved access to higher education. Few investments yield a greater return than a college degree. Education has great potential to combat inequality, but progress simply isn’t possible if legacy persists.
To justify this practice there would need to be, in lawyer language, a compelling justification. There is none. Elite colleges defend legacy as necessary to fund-raising. It isn’t. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor M.I.T. considers legacy. Their prestige is intact, they attract great students, and they have ample endowments. Moreover, technology has transformed fund-raising. Presidential candidates raise money through grass-roots campaigns; colleges can, too.
Legacy evolved largely as a doctrine to legitimize the exclusion of Jews from elite schools. It endures today as a mechanism for reinforcing inequality, with particularly harsh consequences for Asians, and fundamentally contradicts the rhetoric of access in which elite colleges routinely engage.
Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia collectively have endowments of about $100 billion. They have the means to end this abhorrent practice with a stroke of a pen and the financial resources to endure whatever uncertainty ensues. Just a hunch, but I think the economically diverse students admitted to these great colleges would be successful and generous to their alma maters, not in the hope of securing their child a place in a class, but out of genuine appreciation of a legacy of equal access.
Evan J. Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the author of “A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 25, 2014, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: End College Legacy Preferences.