Here’s a test for every honest affirmative-action opponent. What about private colleges’ legacy admissions? If merit rules, then parentage should be just as irrelevant as race for admissions into Harvard or Yale – arguably more so. The trouble lies in public policy. There is no obvious means of coaxing these schools away from what is clearly an unfair practice, without trampling on the rights of private institutions.
The question is raised anew after the release of a study on the children of Duke University alumni admitted to their parents’ alma mater. “A Social Portrait of Legacies at an Elite University” confirms what we previously assumed to be true: Legacies have lower grades, test scores and academic ambition than students who gained admissions the hard way. Authors Nathan D. Martin and Kenneth I. Spenner show that Duke’s legacies underperform as freshmen, are less likely to pursue challenging disciplines including pre-med or engineering and, generally, are less likely to pursue further study. Even the fact that their grades improve measurably during the sophomore year and remain improved is itself an argument for the inherent unfairness of legacy admissions. Why should the children of privilege get a leg up? But that question is hardly the end of the matter. Does the underperformance mean that legacies are less valuable? And who, other than the schools themselves, decides who is “less valuable?” Some of the oft-heard correctives would unnecessarily bludgeon these institutions. Advocates talk of Congress revoking tax exemptions for legacy donations as if to tax an economic transaction. Others would outlaw legacy admissions outright. Neither solution respects the rights and the mission of private institutions as they make what remain essentially private decisions, albeit ones with much social and economic import for the country. Private colleges, though subject to the law, are not extensions of the state. This is perhaps one of the few areas in which the schools themselves are keen to agree. They will continue to agree so as long as “development cases” remain a key part of their fundraising strategy.
It should not offend a conservative to admit that legacy admissions are a rebuke to the meritocratic ideal. Nor should opponents of affirmative action think that a laissez-faire approach affords logical consistency for a person who denies the race factor but approves birth. In both cases, a deserving candidate is still rejected on the margin.
It falls to the schools themselves to recognize and correct the inherent unfairness, and for alumni to shame them into recognition. As the affirmative-action debates have shown, there is no ideal formula for college admissions, and government treads here at everyone’s peril. If lawmakers are truly worried about undue privileges for the wealthy, they should redouble their efforts to help the less privileged, rather than tearing down Princeton for instance, by bolstering state universities.
None of this, it must be said in conclusion, excuses the behavior of elite institutions who shut out worthy applicants merely for ease of fundraising.