Almost a third of Harvard University’s incoming freshman class are “legacies,” according to a new survey by the Harvard Crimson.
Cue the outrage.
Every few years, the percentage of students with parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles who have gone to the same elite school is trotted out as evidence of an admissions structure that is stacked against poor and minority students, a system that cares more about your lineage and your money than your qualifications, and a country where it is simply impossible to work your way up anymore. This is absurd.
For private universities, there is nothing wrong with admitting kids whose relatives have also gone to your school. As a strategy for building a strong university, it makes a great deal of sense.
Harvard could easily fill its entire freshman class with legacies. If you want to count people who had aunts and uncles and grandparents and siblings who attended (as the Crimson did), then for each person who graduated, say, 30 years ago, you’d have a dozen more people who would be “legacies.” And a good number of them would be well qualified to do freshman coursework at Harvard.
Second, many of the high school seniors most qualified to be at Harvard this fall will also happen to be children of Harvard alumni. Frankly, many of them are also children of Yale alumni or Amherst alumni, but the point remains the same. The children in the U.S. who have the highest GPAs and SAT scores, who write smart essays and who have all sorts of interesting extracurricular activities on their resumes are also likely to be the children of graduates of elite institutions.
You can debate whether those qualifications should determine admission, or whether we should take other factors into consideration as well (or instead), but when Charles Murray wrote about the “great sorting” that has gone on in America, this is what he meant. Educated people are marrying educated people and having educated children.
This is society’s problem, not Harvard’s. The fact that poor kids can no longer get a good education in many public schools the way that their grandparents did is not likely to be fixed by the time they are applying to college. The fact that America’s rich and poor now have completely different family structures — and only one of those is likely to produce economically self-sufficient children — is not something that Ivy League admissions officers can alter.
Our obsession with elite institutions has made us believe they are magic. A Harvard admissions letter is a little like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. It will get you in the door. But once you’re in, there will be a bunch of tests to determine whether you are the winner.
And, it should go without saying, there are plenty of places that students can go to get a good education. A recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project found that Queens College, for example, ranks in the top 1 percent of all colleges in moving students from the bottom fifth of the income distribution to the top fifth.
The real complaint about legacies is not that elite schools are admitting qualified students who also happen to be children of alums. It’s that they are lowering their standards in order to do so. And if they’re willing to make exceptions for these spoiled white rich kids, why shouldn’t they do so for minorities? Indeed, shouldn’t they admit the latter instead? (As a white Harvard alumna married to a black man, I should say that if my kids don’t get in to my alma mater, they’ll have only themselves to blame.)
But the notion that most legacies are C students who have just coasted by on their daddy’s good name is long outdated. In their 2009 book, “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal,” Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford wrote that black applicants in the previous decade received the equivalent of a 310-point bonus on their SATs when elite colleges were weighing their applications. Hispanics received 130 points, as did kids who were “poor.” “Working class” kids got 70 points and “upper class” kids lost 30.
By contrast, the authors found a “positive association between being a legacy and admissions outcome, but it was not statistically significant.” Other studies put the number around 20 points. (The people who get the short end of the stick in this debate are Asians, who are less likely than whites to be legacies and don’t count toward some university’s definition of racial diversity. They need an extra 140 points to get in.)
A 2010 Harvard study of 30 elite colleges found that "legacy" applicants actually had slightly higher than average SAT scores than the overall pool of applicants. In other words, there is no evidence that elite schools are letting in underqualified kids in order to please their parents, er, donors.
But for many schools — especially those lower down on the rankings — there is plenty of good reason to let in less qualified kids. First, there is the financial calculus. While a 2010 study found no causal relationship between a policy that gives some preference to legacy and levels of alumni giving, that is clearly not the whole story.
As the authors note, “Prior to controlling for wealth … the results indicate that schools with legacy preference policies indeed have much higher alumni giving.” The authors conclude that a legacy policy “allows elite schools to over-select from their own wealthy alumni.”
Indeed, of the freshmen who had one or more parents who were Harvard grads, almost half had family incomes above $500,000, compared with 1.4 percent with incomes less than $40,000. (If you went to Harvard and your family income today is that low, you should probably ask for a refund.)
But so what? Private schools need money, and wealthy donors are the ones who ensure that schools are able to give a lot of financial aid, go need-blind, or offer free tuition to families whose incomes fall under a certain threshold, which, in the case of Harvard would include many who are middle class or even upper middle class. (Public universities’ primary responsibility is to state taxpayers, and they are supposed to give equal opportunities to all residents.)
Heaven knows I’ve been critical of the dumb ways universities spend their money, but if you want to ensure that the other two-thirds of the incoming class doesn’t have to pay more than they can afford, the money has to come from somewhere.
When I was moving into Adams House at the beginning of my sophomore year at Harvard, my roommate’s father introduced himself, and told me in short order that he was “a direct descendent of Dougie Adams.” I smiled politely, but I could see my roommate grimacing with embarrassment in the corner. I have no idea how much money they gave to the school, but it was clearly a source of great pride for him that his daughter was continuing a long family tradition.
And why shouldn’t it be? Private universities are not simply engines for remaking America’s social structure. They are businesses. And in business, a little brand loyalty can go a long way.