- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. Favoring the children of graduates over others has long been a tradition in admissions to elite schools like the University of Virginia. Enrolled children mean involved alumni, and that usually leads to donations.
The only problem with "legacy" preferences, as they are known, is they tend to reward white students from wealthy families. And as the Supreme Court gets ready to scrutinize race-conscious admissions policies, affirmative-action supporters are attacking legacies as never before.
"Even if one takes into account that there's now a generation of minority students applying, the legacy preference can reach back generations," said Theodore M. Shaw, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lawyer representing 16 black and Hispanic students in the University of Michigan admissions lawsuit April 1.
"It will take a long time before there is any equity there."
The admissions process has never been equal for everyone. Universities have been known to bend the rules for athletes and major school donors.
At many schools, legacy preferences became common in the 19th century as a way of appeasing alumni fathers and limiting the number of Jewish applicants admitted.
Today, sons and daughters of alumni make up more than 10 percent of students at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
They are 23 percent of the student population at Notre Dame. At the University of Virginia, 11 percent of this year's freshmen class were children of alumni and more than 91 percent of them are white.
John A. Blackburn, Virginia's dean of undergraduate admissions, said the preference is one way to thank alumni for volunteer work and donations that help fund faculty chairs and keep the cost of tuition low.
"They're extremely important, particularly now when the state just doesn't have the resources to help with everything we do," Mr. Blackburn said.
That's not to say that UVa.'s legacy students wouldn't have been admitted anyway. Mr. Blackburn said legacies are generally average students, with better grades than in-state students, but not as good as out-of-state students.
Legacy applicants also have no guarantee that they will get in. Mr. Blackburn, who will read half of Virginia's 14,800 undergraduate applications this year, said he doesn't add any specific value to the son or daughter of a graduate.
Instead, they're treated as "plus" applications the same distinction given to racial minorities. If the choice is between two relatively equal applicants, Mr. Blackburn said, the legacy or the minority application gets the edge.
"I considered it a helping hand," said Robert Williams Jr., a UVa. legacy who graduated from high school with a 3.7 GPA, played forward on a state championship basketball team and earned almost enough college credits to make him a sophomore before he set foot on campus. "I don't think it was the backbone of my application."
Because legacy preferences are not by definition based on race, they're not subject to the same legal review as affirmative action. But as long as both exist, they will be coupled in political debates since one seems to balance the other, said Glenn Loury, Boston University professor of economics.
"On the surface, it would be inconsistent to approve of one policy and not the other," Mr. Loury said.
Much of the debate surrounds admissions policies at the University of Michigan, which uses a point system to pick its students and gives minorities a bonus for their race. Three white applicants sued the school in 1997 after they were denied admissions, noting that less-qualified minority students were given entry.
President Bush, a third-generation legacy student at Yale, said he opposes such race-based policies, drawing sharp criticism from Democrats who hope to challenge his re-election.
"He's trying to undo affirmative-action programs that promote opportunity, never mind that an older form of affirmative action helped him get into college as a family legacy," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat and presidential candidate, said in a speech Wednesday in St. Louis.
Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat and presidential candidate, has asked colleges to dismantle legacy policies, calling them "a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy."
In time, however, the legacy class should become increasingly diverse as minority students have children of their own.
Mr. Williams is among UVa.'s small population of minority legacies. His father was one of Virginia's first black law school students. Mr. Williams said that when he graduates, he hopes his children will have a chance to benefit from the same alumni preference.
"We fought to be here," Mr. Williams said. "When you have a nice thing going, you want it to continue."
Researcher Cameron Howell estimates that it will take 17 more years before Virginia's legacy population resembles the racial diversity of its current student population, which is about 70 percent white, 11 percent Asian American, 9 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic.
But that promise will be fulfilled only if affirmative-action policies are allowed to continue, said UVa. education professor Sarah E. Turner.
"Because legacy preferences favor the demographics of a prior generation, you'd exacerbate the underrepresentation of minorities," Miss Turner said. "You put a drag on your ability to allow social change to take place."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide