Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

What Will It Take to End Legacy Preferences?

The email arrived like a temptation.

An invitation seducing me to take part in a questionable game. I quashed my misgivings and filled out the form from my alma mater, noting that I have a child who might apply as a legacy.

Studies have shown what everyone knows to be true: Students who apply to colleges that a family member attended have an unearned advantage over those who don’t. It can be used as a tie-breaker when deciding between two well-qualified applicants, or it can add additional points to an application. A handful of elite institutions -- MIT, Oxford, Cambridge and UC Berkeley -- do not consider legacy as part of admissions, but the vast majority of American colleges do.

Legacy preferences were originally designed to favor white, Protestant men at the expense of Jewish and immigrant applicants who scored higher on entrance exams in greater numbers. And to this day, studies show that the people who benefit from this boost the most are the ones who need it the least. The New York Times editorial board recently described it as affirmative action for the wealthy.

Universities defend the practice because they say it increases alumni donations and engagement with the institution in the long term. It’s almost funny to hear universities with billion-dollar-plus endowments defend a system of privilege because it ensures their own wealth. Plus, there is research that disputes that very claim. If Oxford, Cambridge and MIT do not need to rely on legacy preferences to maintain their world-class status, what does that say about Harvard, Yale and all the other elite institutions who feel compelled to hang on to it?

In reality, colleges and universities will not willingly dismantle legacy preferences simply because they know it would upset too many alumni. Some parents believe that their commitment and relationship to an institution merits bonus points for their child. It’s unclear why a parent’s love or devotion or financial support for anything should translate to her child being entitled to any special consideration for it. In the case of access to higher education, all it does is perpetuate the inequalities built into a rigged system.

Unlike becoming an exceptional athlete or musician or student, being born to parents who attended a particular school required nothing of the student.

I say this while admitting that I was not willing to unilaterally disarm in the current admissions arms race. But if my college or graduate school asked in an alumni survey if I would favor eliminating such consideration entirely from their admissions process, I would support getting rid of it for everyone.

Part of the reason families might be unlikely to give up this advantage for their children is because of how competitive and unaffordable higher education has become in the past few decades. There’s no way I would be accepted to the graduate school I attended under today’s admissions standards. And the current costs at these same places would have put them completely out of reach for me back then, even when adjusted for inflation.

Most middle-class families worry about being able to afford college for their children, and higher education is increasingly seen as a prerequisite to surviving in the global economy. The parental anxiety about securing your child’s place in the middle class or maintaining a place in the upper class may be too great.

Equality is great in theory -- until it impacts your own privilege.

And, interestingly, the public debate about eliminating legacy preferences is gaining steam at the exact moment when historically underrepresented groups might finally benefit from it.

It would be fascinating to see current survey data on how many alumni would support ending legacy preferences at their own institutions. Is there an overlap among those who rally against affirmative action programs yet support legacy preferences?

Don’t expect to see colleges asking their alumni these questions anytime soon.

They may not want to hear the answers.