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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 09/23/2010

Should colleges stop legacy preference in admissions?

By Valerie Strauss

A new book on legacy preference in college admissions says that almost three-quarters of elite national institutions grant legacy preferences in admissions and that the advantage children of alumni can receive is often significant -- even if schools say otherwise.

The book, “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions,” also says that legacy preferences do not result in significant increases in alumni giving, even if schools say that it does.

The first book-length examination of admissions preferences, published by the non-profit Century Foundation in Washington D.C., looks at the legal, policy, and ethical issues related to legacy preferences, with new research from a number of scholars, journalists and lawyers and judges.

Children of alumni generally make up 10 percent to 25 percent of the student body at selective institutions and the proportion often varies little, suggesting, an informal quota system, the book says. By contrast, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which lacks legacy preferences, only 1.5 percent of students are children of alumni.

Legacy preferences, the book says, disproportionately hurt students of color. Under-represented minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities, but only 6.7 percent of the legacy applicant pool.

At Texas A&M, 321 of the legacy admits in 2002 were white, while only 3 were black, and 25 were Hispanic. At Harvard University, only 7.6 percent of legacy admits in 2002 were under-represented minorities, compared with 17.8 percent of all students. Likewise, at the University of Virginia, 91 percent of early decision legacy admits in 2002 were white, 1.6 percent black, and 0.5 percent Hispanic.

In the past decade or so, 16 leading institutions have abandoned the practice of giving preference to legacies, including the University of California, Berkeley. Texas A&M; the University of Arizona; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Georgia).

Among the book's other findings:

* Some colleges and universities try to downplay the impact of legacy preferences, calling them “tie breakers” in very close admissions calls, but the research suggests that their weight is significant, on the order of adding 160 SAT points to a candidate’s record.

* Americans oppose legacy preferences by 75 percent to 23 percent, according to polls.

* There is virtually no relationship between alumni preferences and giving. A new study in the book looks at alumni giving from 1998 to 2007 at the top 100 national universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report to examine the relationship between giving and the existence of alumni preferences.

Researchers found that schools with preferences for children of alumni did have higher annual giving per alumni ($317 versus $201), but that this advantage resulted because the alumni in schools with alumni preferences tended to be wealthier. Controlling for the wealth of alumni, they find “no evidence that legacy preference policies themselves exert an influence on giving behavior.”

* Researchers also examined what happened to giving at seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences during the time period of the study: Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, the University of Georgia, the University of Iowa, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Nebraska, and Vanderbilt. They find “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result of abolishing legacy preferences.” After Texas A&M eliminated the use of legacy preferences in 2004, for example, donations took a small hit, but then increased substantially from 2005 to 2007.

* Legacy preferences are vulnerable legally. Although a 1976 federal district court ruled in a cursory fashion that legacy preferences were constitutional, the issue has never been properly litigated. Two legal theories are offered under which legacy preferences could be challenged at both public and private institutions under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, a provision prohibiting states from granting Titles of Nobility, and the 1866 Civil Rights Act.

* IRS regulations raise questions about whether donations given by alumni in exchange for admissions preference for their children those donations should be tax deductible, the book says.

If universities and colleges are conferring a monetary benefit in exchange for donations, then the arrangement shatters the first principle underlying the charitable deduction, that donations to nonprofit organizations not “enrich the giver.” The IRS regulations place universities in a legal catch-22: Either donations are not linked to legacy preferences, in which case the fundamental rationale for ancestry discrimination is flawed; or giving is linked to legacy preferences, in which case donations should not be tax deductible.

Should all colleges and universities drop legacy preference?


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 23, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Research  | Tags:  college admissions, ies, legacies, legacy preference, should legacy preference be dropped  
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What this article and others like it fail to address is the criteria for college admission. Assuming that a kid gets high entrance test scores on the ACT and SAT, why should THEY have to go to college? If they already are supposedly intelligent as supported by their scores, shouldn't colleges accept those who didn't score as high? What about the mounds of data showing that SAT and ACT scores are heavily influenced by socioeconomic status?

I think that colleges and universites are more interested in getting kids who are easy to teach than in actually teaching. That's because they know that alumni will give money because they've got kids who can make the college or university look good. That's why private institutions like Harvard and Yale are selective because they depend on alumni support to even operate at all. That doesn't mean that they're great institutions of higher learning.

Posted by: AlexKB | September 23, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Private universities are *private* so they if they want to give preference to legacies, that's nobody's business but their own.

Public universities are funded partially by the public. As such, legacy preference is absolutely inappropriate and should not even be allowed.

Posted by: postisarag | September 23, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Legacies are the worst type- of affirmative action imaginable: a preferrence for the advantaged, but untalented and undeserving.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 23, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Titles of nobility? Really?

Posted by: bdrockville | September 27, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

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