Elite Colleges, or Colleges for the Elite?
By RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG
Published: September 29, 2010
TODAY'S populist moment, with a growing anger directed at the elites
who manipulate the system to their advantage, is an opportune time to
examine higher education's biggest affirmative action program — for
the children of alumni.
At our top universities, so-called legacy preferences affect larger
numbers of students than traditional affirmative action programs for
minority students, yet they have received a small fraction of the
attention. Unlike the issue of racial preferences, advantages for
alumni children — who are overwhelmingly white and wealthy — have been
the subject of little scholarship, no state voter initiatives and no
Supreme Court decisions.
Among selective research universities, public and private, almost
three-quarters employ legacy preferences, as do the vast majority of
selective liberal arts colleges. Some admissions departments insist
they are used only as tie-breakers among deserving applicants. But
studies have shown that being the child of an alumnus adds the
equivalent of 160 SAT points to one's application (using the
traditional 400-to-1600-point scale, and not factoring in the new
writing section of the test) and increases one's chances of admission
by almost 20 percentage points.
At many selective schools, legacies make up 10 percent to 25 percent
of the student population. By contrast, at the California Institute of
Technology, which has no legacy preferences, only 1.5 percent of
students are the children of alumni.
Legacy preferences are often justified as a way of building loyalty
among alumni, sustaining tradition and increasing donations. But there
is no hard evidence to prove this. A study by Winnemac Consulting for
the Century Foundation found that from 1998 to 2007, at the nation's
top 100 national universities, if one controls for the wealth of
alumni, "there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal
relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni
giving." Moreover, the study found that at the seven universities that
dropped legacy preferences during the time of the study, alumni giving
Legacy preferences are "virtually unknown in the rest of the world,"
according to Daniel Golden, a former reporter for The Wall Street
Journal. The paradox is that while they are an American contrivance,
they are also un-American, standing in direct contradiction to Thomas
Jefferson's famous call to promote a "natural aristocracy" based on
"virtue and talent." The Old World nature of hereditary preferences
may explain why, in a 2004 poll by The Chronicle of Higher Education,
Americans opposed such preferences by 75 percent to 23 percent.
Legacy preferences may also be illegal. Although in 1976 a federal
court ruled in a passing mention that legacy preferences are
constitutional, the issue has never been properly litigated. Today,
new legal arguments have been advanced questioning legacy preferences
at both public and private universities.
Steve Shadowen and Sozi Tulante, two lawyers in private practice in
Pennsylvania, have argued forcefully that preferences violate the
equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. While the amendment was
primarily aimed at prohibiting discrimination against blacks, it also
extends to what Justice Potter Stewart called "preferences based on
lineage." In the past, the Supreme Court has read the amendment to
prohibit laws that judge individuals on their parents' actions or
behaviors, such as those that punish children born out of wedlock.
Legacy preferences at private institutions may also violate the 1866
Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of
"ancestry" as well as race.
Affirmative action policies are controversial because they pit two
fundamental principles against each other — the anti-discrimination
principle, which says we should not classify people by ancestry, and
the anti-subordination principle, which says we must address a brutal
history of discrimination. Legacy preferences, by contrast, advance
neither principle — they simply classify individuals by bloodline.
Congress should outlaw alumni preferences at all universities and
colleges receiving federal financing, just as the Civil Rights Act of
1964 outlaws racial discrimination at them. Or lawmakers could limit
the tax deductibility of alumni donations at institutions that favor
legacy children on the principle that tax-deductible donations are not
supposed to enrich the giver. If legislators don't act, it will fall
to lawyers to bring suit to enforce the 14th Amendment and the 1866
Civil Rights Act and put an end to this form of discrimination in
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is
the editor of "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in
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