Getting Ahead the “Old-Fashioned Way”

What do you call a college admissions policy that privileges an attribute totally unrelated to scholastic merit?  If you answered “affirmative action” then you’re right.  However, I’m not referring to race-conscious admissions, but rather practices embraced by many universities that lend a helping hand to those who least need it: children of alumni.

A recent study by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at Harvard, sheds light on “legacy” admissions, or essentially affirmative action for wealthy whites.  Using data from the nation’s 30 most selective institutions of higher learning, Hurwitz compared two acceptance rates: those when applicants had familial connections to specific schools, and those when the same applicants lacked such ties at similarly competitive institutions.  The key variable, in other words, was legacy connections, not the quality of the applicant or the relative competitiveness of the university.  Hurwitz found that students were seven times more likely to gain admission if one of their parents was a graduate of the school to which they were applying.  Even having a sibling or extended family member who was an alumnus doubled their chances.

The impact of legacy admissions may be significant for college applicants, but are the policies themselves common?  Very much so.  Prestigious research universities, public and private, routinely use them.  Nearly a quarter of students at some schools have familial ties to their alma mater.  By way of contrast, the California institute of Technology does not privilege family connections and, tellingly, less than two percent of its students are legacies.

Given the ubiquitous practice of perpetuating privilege, it’s no wonder that some of the nation’s most prestigious schools are strikingly homogenous.  According to the Economist, three-quarters of all students at the nation’s most prestigious 146 colleges hail from the richest quartile of families, while just three percent are from the poorest fourth.  (Median family income of Harvard students is $150,000).  The magazine notes: “At an elite university, you are 25 times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor one.”

Of course, many factors contribute to the lack of economic diversity found on campus.  But the degree to which legacy admissions perpetuate the class system should cause alarm.  Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, drives home the point in a New York Times op-ed entitled, “Elite Colleges, or Colleges for the Elite?”  Policies that reward pedigree, he argues, run counter to the notion deeply embedded in the American ethos of a “natural aristocracy” based on “virtue and talent,” as famously invoked by Thomas Jefferson.

Kahlenberg wonders why legacy admissions have escaped the scrutiny given to racial preferences, which have been the subject of various voter initiatives and a Supreme Court ruling.  It’s a good question.  One obvious answer is racism.  How else can it be explained that admission practices benefiting the historically privileged are passively endorsed, while those seeking to ameliorate the legacy for those historically wronged encounter such push-back?  Yet such an explanation is also inadequate.

The reason why is that America is no longer a place where boundless ambition triumphs, regardless of race.  We are, in many ways, class-bound.  Inequality stands at levels not seen since the Gilded Age: the richest 10 percent own two-thirds of the country’s wealth.  This might be tolerable if social mobility was robust.  But it isn’t. Typically, Brahmins remain Brahmins and those untouched by prosperity remain untouched.  Indeed, social mobility is now greater in many European countries than in the US.

Legacy admissions are symptomatic of our slide towards plutocracy.  We are increasingly becoming a society of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich, and so are our “public” institutions, including our institutions for higher learning.  Kahlenberg is not entirely despondent, though.  He suggests that the populism gripping the country might offer hope for challenging legacy admissions, which might violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  However, pinning hopes on the Tea Party’s supposed anti-elitism will disappoint, as right wing populism is always a stalking horse for those who favor concentrating wealth even further.

Tea Party darling John Raese, a wealthy businessman who ran for the Senate from West Virginia this past year, proudly offered up his secret to success: “I made my money the old-fashioned way.  I inherited it.”  Raese lost his race, but his notion of American “ingenuity” reigns supreme, especially at our nation’s universities, where legacy admissions ensure that pedigree and success are two partners wed in unholy matrimony, rarely for better and more often for worse.

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