The Opposite of Affirmative Action?


With presidential campaign rhetoric heating up about affirmative action in college admissions, I was interested to see this article posted to Inside Higher Ed’s Daily News Update. It talks about “legacy” admissions. Admissions officers don’t talk about this much, but most colleges and universities offer some advantage to children of alumni (and, even less talked about, children of faculty and staff…not to mention donors). The study cited in the article found really shocking evidence that…sit down before you read this…legacy admits tend to be white and wealthy. Gasp.

What’s amazing to me is how rarely this comes up in discussions about making admissions a fair process. The article claims that colleges justify legacy admissions by claiming children of alumni are likely to be better prepared for college, but the truth is that we take legacies (and faculty and staff children and donor offspring) because we know that such students tend to be very very loyal to our institutions. And by loyal, I mean really likely future donors.

I don’t see much wrong with this, as long as it’s done in a reasonable way. The article says the study finds legacies less prepared, but I’m not sure less prepared means under prepared. The article focuses on SAT scores (readers know my feelings on that measure) and shows that after first semester performance is the same as non-legacies. I do, however think that it presents a significnat challenge for schools that have had a very traditional enrollment, and may make it more important for those schools to take some action to advantage students who are different than their legacy pool. In other words, if I’m taking more high income students from a particular region as legacies, it might be worth accepting more low income students from another region to offset that issue. Of course, if you’re a high income non-legacy from the first region you’re going to see that system as terribly unfair and claim there are quota’s and bias, etc.

The main issue, as I see it, is that the process really isn’t “fair”, if by fair you mean that there is some objective standard that can measure every applicant and be applied evenly. Admissions officers try our best to make the process as fair as it can be, which is usually when the charges of bias and unfairness get the loudest. But at the core this is a subjective process, and at competitive institutions someone is going to be told “no”, and those receiving that answer are unlikely to ever be very happy about it. Be seeing you.

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One Response

  1. …when universities are fully funded by the state and student tuition revenue, then might be the only time when eliminating legacies (and employee offspring) from a preference list could be attainable.

    Without the enticement of future donations there really isn’t a need to consider one student over another for any other reason but aptitude.

    As for the process not being fair… few things in life are! Parents know better and should impart some of this wisdom on their kids rather than pandering to every whim as far too many do. The real world of not getting everything you deserve awaits! (As a dad of an 11 month old…I can only hope to aspire to living up to those words myself!)

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