The immorality of legacy in deciding Yale admissions

Imagine this. Sometime in the next two weeks, President Richard Levin unveils a bold, new plan to alter forever the face of Ivy League admissions. Despite being condemned by a fierce, entrenched opposition, Levin convinces Harvard, Stanford and other rival universities to endorse his proposal. After several years, Levin’s hard work helps dismantle one of the most aristocratic, elitist bulwarks of current admissions policies.

Pinch yourself — you’re dreaming. Levin has prepared a new announcement about Yale’s admissions program, but it concerns early decision, mere peanuts in the fight to reform college admissions. In my idealistic hypothetical, I was referring to a much more egregious shortcoming in today’s admissions practices — that of granting special treatment to legacies.

If you think early decision hurts poor applicants and reduces undergraduate diversity, consider the impact of granting special status to the children of blue-blood alumni.

Originally, legacy preferences were enacted in 1925 to keep qualified Jews from infiltrating Yale’s old boys network. As a 1929 memo bluntly put it, legacy preferences allowed the admissions office to pass Jews over in favor of “Yale sons of good character and reasonably good record.”

Seventy years later, legacy preferences still prevent minorities and underprivileged students from attending Yale. As in the 1920s, modern-day legacies predominantly come from white, well-off families. Each year, they comprise 10 percent to 15 percent of matriculating freshmen.

Last year, 29 percent of legacy applicants were accepted, compared to 13 percent in the overall pool. This 2-to-1 ratio in admit rates is typical across the Ivy League.

Some defend the higher legacy admit rate by arguing that the children of alumni tend to be smarter, keener and more competent than other candidates — after all, they were raised by former Yalies. But if that were the case, they wouldn’t need an extra boost during their admissions reading. Yale wouldn’t need an extra section in its application form asking candidates to list any “parents, stepparents or grandparents” who are former alumni.

In actuality, evidence has shown that legacies don’t tend to be more qualified than non-legacies. In “A is for Admissions,” former Dartmouth admissions officer Michele Hernandez confirmed that test scores and high school rankings tend to be lower for legacy students than the class average. Even Yale admissions officers concede that legacies beat out non-legacies in close races.

That brings us to the main question: Do legacies really need an admissions boost on top of their privileged upbringings and access to Yale-educated parents? By all measures of fairness, the answer is no.

In fact, compared to minorities and student athletes, legacies are less deserving of their special treatment. Athletes, at least, have become first-class competitors in their respective sports. Underrepresented minorities have overcome racism. In contrast, legacies were simply born into the right families.

So why has the status quo remained in place for so long? Because admitting legacies attracts donations from their parents. More legacies means larger endowments. That translates to more money available for financial aid, libraries and lab equipment. In a sense, the current system has institutionalized a way in which Yale alumni can bribe the admissions office to grant their children extra backing. Morally, this fact should shame us all.

Ideally, Yale would do away with special status for legacy students altogether. But just for kicks, let’s assume that it’s perfectly all right to allow some students to buy their way into Yale. Even then, we could still improve upon our current system.

To see how, take a look at the other type of rich-student admissions candidate: “development cases.” In plain English, these students are applicants whose parents have promised vast windfalls of money — as in millions of dollars — if their children are accepted. Administrators from Yale’s admissions and provost offices deny that such cases exist, but as Hernandez says, it is common knowledge that they occur at most other Ivy League universities.

What is less known is that “development” cases typically make up less than 2 to 3 percent of each incoming class. So I say why not pick a couple more “development” students, and pick 20 to 30 fewer rich legacies? Overall, you’ll cash in on more donations and you’ll open up more spots for deserving students. As things stand now, privileging legacies in the admissions process is a suboptimal way of letting students bribe their way into Yale. Let’s admit four or five more Saudi princes than we usually do each year, and, in exchange, let’s do away with the most elitist practice present in college admissions.

Sahm Adrangi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column will appear regularly on alternate Wednesdays.