Opinion: In A Country Struggling With Inequality, Colleges Should End Legacy Admissions

Opinion: In A Country Struggling With Inequality, Colleges Should End Legacy Admissions

Via Giphy

College admissions aren’t equal. And they should be, declared a recent opinion piece by the New York Times Editorial Board. 

According to the op-ed, one way to put college admissions on a more even playing field would be to end legacy admissions, which have been called “affirmative action for the rich” and “affirmative action for whites.”

Diversity has not really reached higher education, according to the stats — especially at the more elite institutions.

“According to the US Department of Education, in 2012 69 percent of white people between the age of 25 and 29 had bachelor’s degrees, while only 9 of black people did, yet 14 percent of blacks were said to be enrolled in college in 2012. In 2015, the poverty rate for black people was 24.1 percent and 21.4 percent for Hispanic people in comparison to 9.1 percent for white people,” The Nation reported in 2018.

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And legacy admission is part of the problem, according to the NYT op-ed.

“For nearly a century, many American college and university admissions officers have given preferential treatment to the children of alumni. The policies originated in the 1920s, coinciding with an influx of Jewish and Catholic applicants to the country’s top schools. They continue today, placing a thumb on the scale in favor of students who already enjoy the benefits of being raised by families with elite educations,” the op-ed read.

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A U.S. News & World Report study found that of the country’s top 100 schools, about three-quarters have legacy preferences in admissions. 

The colleges say that legacy admissions have not hurt diversity.

“‘Backers of legacy preference point out that at Harvard and other schools across the country, the student body — and with it the pool of alumni — has gotten more diverse over time. That means that the composition of the legacy population is also diversifying,” the Op-Ed states. There is evidence of this. At Harvard, about 80 percent of legacy admissions for the class of 2014 were white; for the class of 2019, only 60 percent of legacies were white. 

But the op-ed implied a deeper look at legacy and the stats. 

“Like many policies of past eras, legacy admissions get uglier the closer you look at them. A few decades ago, the percentage of legacy students at top schools was sometimes higher than it is today. But admission rates at those institutions have fallen much faster than the percentage of legacy students,” the editors wrote.

“If you take a typical Ivy League school, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, they might admit two-thirds of legacy applicants. Now they might admit one-third of legacy applicants. But, at the same time, their overall acceptance rate has probably gone down from between 20 and 25 percent to between 5 and 10 percent. So, proportionally, being a legacy is even more of an advantage,” Dan Golden, an investigative journalist, told The New Yorker.

While  American universities are hanging on to legacy preference, colleges in other countries have given up the practice. Oxford and Cambridge Universities, for example, abandoned the practice decades ago. Some U.S.colleges have followed suit — and have survived and thrived — such as Texas A&M University and the University of Georgia. Massachusetts Institute of Technology historically hasn’t used them.  And government officials are moving toward reform of higher education. There’s a bill introduced in the California State Legislature would bar any school that gives preferential treatment to donors or legacies from participating in the state’s Cal Grants program. This is just one legislative proposal being made nationwide.

Besides withholding federal funding, the NYT editors say there are other things the government can do to make college admissions fairer.

“Instead, the government could require schools to tally and publish how many of their students are legacy admits, along with their scores and socioeconomic status, as a way to give the issue more publicity and to shame them into ending the practice. Senator Ted Kennedy — a legacy student if ever there was one — introduced legislation to do just that in 2003,” they wrote.

The editorial board concluded: “Whatever the mechanism, it makes sense for a group of competitor schools to take the leap together, a mutual stand-down. Doing so would be in the best traditions of American higher education, which for decades has worked to extend opportunity to generations of poor and minority students. Inaction by the academy, on the other hand, risks fueling a growing public sense that higher education is part of the crisis of the American establishment.”