Thursday, January 24, 2019

Maintaining the Elite

Many US colleges admit “legacies”, or students with a family connection to the university, at dramatically higher rates than other applicants. They are widely seen as a reliable source of alumni donations. 

At Harvard, the acceptance rate for legacy students is about 33%, compared with an overall acceptance rate of under 6%. Countless powerful Americans have followed their relatives to elite universities. In 1935, when John F Kennedy applied to Harvard, the first page of the application form asked where his father had graduated from college. “Harvard 1912,” he wrote. He was admitted, though his academic record was not especially strong. In 1964, George W Bush followed his father and grandfather to Yale, despite lackluster grades.

What is so special about wealthy people that Harvard needs to have them overrepresented by a factor of six on its campus?

In October, Harvard was taken to federal district court for allegedly discriminating against Asian Americans. The lawsuit against Harvard says that the admissions office gives lower average “personal ratings” to applicants of Asian descent. According to the group that filed the lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions, this limits the number of Asian Americans in the student body. 

According to court documents filed in support of the lawsuit, among white applicants who were accepted to Harvard, 21.5% had legacy status. Only 6.6% of accepted Asian applicants, and 4.8% of accepted African American applicants, were legacies.

Similar practices exist at colleges across the US. Naviance, an education software company, recently gathered data on legacy applicants to 64 colleges. They estimated that on average, the admissions rate for legacies was around 31% higher than the official admissions rates for all applicants. 

Princeton has reported that legacy applicants are admitted at roughly four times the rate of applicants overall. Notre Dame and Georgetown have announced that their legacy admissions rates are about twice their overall admissions rates. 

Legacy preferences at US colleges are as old as the modern college admissions process. In 1922, Dartmouth College took the historic step of codifying nine criteria for admission. Number seven promised to admit “all properly qualified Sons of Dartmouth Alumni and Dartmouth College Officers”. At the time, American colleges were almost exclusively white and male. Many institutions, including Harvard, used a discriminatory quota system to limit the number of Jewish students.

Legacy preferences appeared to influence the makeup of the student body. It is pretty obvious how many seem to come from very wealthy, privileged backgrounds.

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