Doing well by alums while opening our doors

Samuel Whittelsey probably had little idea that he was starting a tradition when he received his diploma in 1729. Like many of his fellow Elis, Whittelsey’s father was a clergyman. But the elder Samuel Whittelsey was also a Yalie, a member of the Class of 1705. Just 28 years after its founding, Yale had graduated its first legacy.

Almost three centuries later, Yale maintains an admissions policy that tries to do well not only by the sons and daughters of Eli, but by their sons and daughters as well. But whether Yale and other universities should continue giving preference to today’s Samuel — and now, Samantha — Whittelseys is increasingly up for debate. President George W. Bush ’68, no stranger to legacy himself, said last year that the practice was unfair. On the other side of the political spectrum, Massachusetts Senator (and Harvard legacy) Ted Kennedy, along with several Democratic colleagues, has supported legislation to require greater disclosure about a practice they say supports the privileged at the expense of everyone else.

Despite the stereotype, the average legacy is no academic slouch: According to Yale, legacies actually come to New Haven with stronger academic records than their classmates and receive better grades once here. So the fact that the admissions rate is about three times higher for legacies than for the applicant pool at large does not necessarily mean children of alumni receive a tremendous boost. At the same time, Yale makes no secret of the fact that legacies have a leg up in admissions.

Legacy may be an easy political target, but a fair look at the process reveals benefits that cannot be dismissed lightly. Legacy, for better or for worse, is a central part of building loyalty among Yale alumni — loyalty that doesn’t just mean a full cheering section at the Game, but hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. Without maintaining that relationship, even a $41,000 term bill won’t come close to raising the money Yale needs to stay in the very top echelon of American universities.

But for all legacy brings, there is something a bit unsettling about it, too. Yale styles itself as a meritocracy, a place that accepts only the best of the best regardless of whether their parents earned a Yale law degree or never graduated from high school. As the classes of the 1960s and 1970s grow older, legacy applicants are growing more and more diverse — but that doesn’t change the fact that most of them grew up in privilege. And when a legacy receives favorable treatment, who gets shut out?

That’s the key question Yale must answer if it hopes to maintain a legacy system that preserves the goodwill of alumni without penalizing students who did not have the luxury of growing up Blue. In the admissions process, Yale must balance legacy preferences by continuing to reward applicants who overcome obstacles to get here — those who are the first in their families to go to college, or the first in their high schools to attend the Ivy League. And Yale’s efforts must go even beyond that, as it seeks a way to recruit motivated and talented students for whom Yale feels like a remote possibility, not a family heirloom.

Since the days of the Whittelseys, the University has done well by its alums, but it has also developed a commitment to opening its doors. For Yale, those are both traditions worth keeping.