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The massive college admissions bribery scandal that has entangled Hollywood stars, wealthy elites and prestigious universities is drawing attention to a broader discussion of how colleges decide who to accept. While celebrities like Felicity Huffman broke the law to give their children a boost, there are a number of legal moves that are seen as giving rich people the ability to tip the scales in favor of their kids.
One of these methods is so-called legacy admissions, the practice of giving an advantage to children whose parents attended the school. Family history is considered in the admissions decisions of 42 percent of private colleges in the U.S., including many of the most renowned universities in the country, according to a 2018 study.
Children of legacies are estimated to be two to four times more likely to be accepted to elite schools. Having a parent who’s an alum is the equivalent of a 160-point boost in a student's SAT score, research shows.
Why there’s debate
Legacy admissions have been called “affirmative action for rich white people.” Critics of the practice say it gives priority to students who need it the least and undermines the idea that academic success should be based purely on merit. As opposed to race and income considerations — which are aimed at reducing inequality — legacy preference serves to perpetuate it, some say. A recent study found that 70 percent of Harvard legacy applicants are white.
Defenders of legacy admissions say they create a generational commitment to a university that improves the campus community and makes alumni more likely to donate money. Those funds are needed to fund scholarships for students from lower-income homes or underrepresented groups, some college officials say.
Some argue that it would be a shame to get rid of legacy admissions at a time when people of color have finally put themselves in a position to take advantage of them. Others say eliminating legacy preference would do little to fix issues of diversity on college campuses.
With some of California’s most prominent schools at the center of the college admissions scandal, lawmakers in the state considered banning schools that receive state grants from using legacy preference. The bill was watered down significantly before it was passed, but the original draft could become a model for states that want to push colleges to abandon the practice.
Legacy preference makes inequality worse.
“Preferential treatment for legacy admissions is anti-meritocratic, inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system. In short, it is an engine of inequity.” — Editorial, New York Times
It undermines the American ideal that anyone can succeed if they work hard.
“As we become a more diverse and hopefully more democratic nation, it just becomes harder and harder to defend these anachronistic practices that are deeply un-American.” — Education expert Richard Kahlenberg to USA Today
All other countries have abandoned legacy admissions.
“The United States is now the only nation in the world where colleges routinely use legacy status as a factor in admissions.” — Richard V. Reeves, Brookings Institution
Legacy preference holds back people of color.
“Harvard’s preference for legacies places almost all non-white applicants at a distinct disadvantage.” — Jennifer Lee, Los Angeles Times
Universities should prioritize students who are the first in their family to go to college.
“...efforts and initiatives to support first-generation students and others cannot be fully realized if practices that give preferential treatment to those from families of multigenerational college graduates continue to exist.” — Peter McPherson, Inside Higher Ed
People who oppose affirmative action should also oppose legacy admission.
“...those of us who detest racial preferences should despise legacy preferences twice as much.” — Robert Verbruggen, National Review
Legacy admissions don’t actually lead to more donations.
“The irony: Favoring the sons and daughters of alums to cement a relationship with the parents doesn’t result in more donations.” — Howard Gold, MarketWatch
Without legacy admissions, universities would lose much-needed donations.
“The most important rationale that colleges cite is a financial one: They tend to believe that giving legacy applicants an edge helps them bring in alumni donations.” — Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic
Minority parents should have the chance to take advantage of the system that historically held them back.
We shouldn’t eliminate legacy preferences just as people of color can finally start benefiting from them.— Joshua Alvarez, Washington Monthly
Eliminating legacy admissions wouldn’t have a significant impact.
“You could swap out every legacy, donor offspring, and faculty child (not to mention, since almost nobody does, recruited athletes) in those schools for an underprivileged applicant and the inequality needle would hardly budge.” — Louis Menand, The New Yorker
Legacies tend to take spots from other privileged white people.
“It may be that white percentages stay pretty stable, even without upper-class affirmative action, because white legacies and athletes are often admitted at the expense of less-affluent white kids, rather than minorities.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times
Universities should be able to decide their own legacy policies.
“But even though the system is ripe for extinction, that’s a policy change that private colleges should be making on their own and in ways that work best both for their institutions and for students.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Colleges can promote diversity while still maintaining legacy preference.
“Giving some slots to legacies doesn’t mean you can’t also recruit and admit motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds to combat inequality in Harvard Yard.” — Rich Barlow, WBUR
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(Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)