Education Matters/Opinion: Leaving a legacy of unfair advantage

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Essays are written, letters of recommendation completed, transcripts mailed, and college applications are in. Now, Part Two, the waiting, begins.

As high school seniors ponder their future academic careers, a new study just released indicates it’s not quite a level playing field out there in College Admissions Land. No one will call this earthshaking news; any student with functioning brain cells knows that some of their peers will have unfair advantage based on all kinds of factors having nothing to do with academic ability.

But the study is compelling, nevertheless, in its exhaustive examination of the effect of legacies and family ties on college admissions, which – if you believe the evidence – have more impact than previously thought.

Conducted by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student in quantitative policy analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the study shows that an applicant whose parents attended the college as an undergraduate had a 45.1 percent increased chance of being admitted.

This “primary legacy” connection weighed much higher than “secondary legacy” family members, including siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. A secondary legacy connection did, though, increase chances somewhat, by 13.7 percent, according to the Harvard study.

Hurwitz examined data from 30 highly selective U.S. universities, none of whom the author identified, since access to private information was provided on the condition that the universities would remain anonymous. But, to guess, one would expect the list to include the big four: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. After that, there are the other Ivy League colleges, and then other elite schools like Duke, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Washington University, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Rice, Emory, Georgetown, USC, Carnegie Mellon ... to name a few.

The University of California colleges – notably UCLA and Berkeley – are commonly listed among the top U.S. colleges but famously do not grant favoritism to legacy students, to the UC system’s credit.

An article on the study in the Jan. 8 New York Times speculated on the anonymous colleges, stating, “It seemed apparent that they are the members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a group made up of the Ivy Leagues and two dozen other private research universities and liberal arts colleges.”

Charitable giving as an admissions factor

According to Hurwitz’s abstract, “Unlike other quantitative studies addressing this topic, I use conditional logistic regression with fixed effects for colleges to draw conclusions about the impact of legacy status on admissions odds. By doing so, I eliminate most sources of outcome bias by controlling for applicant characteristics that are constant across colleges and college characteristics that are constant across applicants.”

In other words, he controlled for varying factors – a comment sure to infuriate researchers for my over-simplicity.

In the New York Times Jan. 8 story, Hurwitz explained, “I was able to take into account all the applicant’s characteristics, because they were the same at every school they applied to. About the only thing that would be different was their legacy status.”

Hurwitz calculated that the odds of admission are multiplied by a factor of 3.13 due to legacy status.

He also concluded traditional analytic techniques underestimate the true impact of legacy status and that the legacy admissions advantage is further enhanced through early admissions programs.

Hurwitz did not address how much money legacy families had contributed to their alma maters, as a potential factor in acceptance of offspring. But a common explanation for favoring legacy students is that their admission would increase donations to the university’s endowment fund and ensure continued donations for years to come.

“I don’t know whether the legacy admissions advantage is related to charitable giving … [but] this seems like a plausible hypothesis,” Hurwitz said in an e-mail to the Stanford Daily, in a Jan. 10 story, which noted that Stanford raised $640 million in 2009, more than any other college or university.

In the Jan. 10 story, Stanford’s dean of undergraduate admission Richard Shaw said the proof that legacy status does not guarantee admission is “that the majority of students that are legacies do not get in.” But he went on to say that legacies are very strong candidates.

“In looking at our quantitative measures, our legacy enrollees or admits tend to be stronger than the median of the admitted class,” Shaw said in the Stanford Daily story. “It shatters another perception that unqualified or less qualified students are getting into Stanford because they are sons or daughters of parents who have come before them.”

Shaw then said, “Stanford has a proud and long tradition of access and opportunity to all sorts of populations from its founding. One of the populations that we certainly celebrate is the sons and daughters of those who have come before.”

I’m not picking on Stanford (well, maybe a little). But it’s exasperating that students with higher academic success are often denied access to elite colleges when peers whose parents attended an elite university are seen to buy their children’s way in. Even the Stanford Daily blasted the practice.

“Such blind and even selfish interests are ultimately preserving elements of blue-blooded practices that have traditionally (and rightly) given selective universities a bad name, and are doing the further injustice of making some of the remarkable students at Stanford who are the children of alumni (including many who would get in and soar, anyway) feel that their admission is seen as suspect,” wrote Aysha Bagchi on Oct. 5, 2010 for the Stanford Daily.

“They are helping to preclude deserving students who don’t have a family history at elite American universities from changing that fact. And they are reinforcing public views of top schools as private clubs, views Stanford in particular should take a lead in dispelling. It is time for legacy preferencing in admissions to go.”

The value of academic merit

Harvard students also questioned the practice of legacy favoritism and argued in favor of conducting an impartial study to determine if these preferences actually pay off. In the Oct. 7, 2010 Harvard Crimson, the editorial staff wrote, “Harvard has long argued that supporting the legacy tradition helps maintain an active alumni base and encourages donations. However, the administration needs to do more to back up its argument and should launch a new study to reevaluate whether this practice actually benefits Harvard’s relationship with alumni.”

“… Harvard should admit students based on academic merit and other forms of recognizable achievement. Since legacy status does not fit within either of those categories, it should not add to a student’s candidacy unless perpetuating this policy actually benefits the university as a whole. … We hope that the college reevaluates its stance toward admissions by studying the realities of legacy preference and acting accordingly.”

If students and parents of qualified applicants are incensed over the unfair advantages money can provide in this highly competitive college admissions environment, they can take comfort knowing that others in positions of authority believe legacy favoritism may be grounds for legal action.

“At a time when admission to elite colleges has become increasingly competitive, critics say the legacy admissions advantage stands as an undemocratic obstacle to social mobility,” reported the New York Times.

In the Jan. 8 story, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the nonprofit research organization Century Foundation, said, “It’s fundamentally unfair because it’s a preference that advantages the already advantaged. It has nothing to do with the individual merit of the applicant.”

Kahlenberg predicted a legal challenge to legacy preferences for public universities, which he said could be attacked as unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, “while private universities might be vulnerable under an 1866 civil rights statute prohibiting discrimination based on ‘ancestry,’” according to the story.

In the Jan. 6 Chronicle of Higher Education, Kahlenberg wrote, “For years, colleges and universities have justified legacy preferences as a ‘tiebreaker’ in close admissions calls.”

The ostensible purpose of this preferential treatment is that admitting legacy children increases alumni giving.

“But in an otherwise heavily documented study, Hurwitz cites no research evidence to support the hypothesis (long advanced by universities) that the presence of legacy preferences increases alumni giving,” Kahlenberg wrote.

Kahlenberg cited a previous study showing that alumni giving did not decline at seven universities that dropped legacy preferences. He concluded that research indicates that “legacy preferences are more significant than previously believed, yet their fundamental rationale (raising money) is flawed.

Study by study, the case for eliminating ancestry discrimination in college admissions continues to grow.”

Even if legacy preferences increase donations to universities, that doesn’t justify the unfair practice.

Legacy favoritism amounts to nothing more than social injustice and undemocratic principles that reward the wealthy and punish the poor and middle class. Preferential treatment of legacy children also insults the truly qualified whose parents may just happen to be alumni.

High school seniors who have pinned their hopes on the fairness of the system and the virtue of academic excellence should not have to suffer shattered idealism and dashed faith in the benefits of hard work. Kids need to know that what matters most is not which family one is lucky enough to be born into.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at:



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