At the end of this academic year, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel will return to the classroom. Brenzel’s tenure has been marked by a number of successes, including an effort to yield more applicants interested in science and engineering and more effective international recruitment. But as we usher in a new face to guide the office of admissions, it is time to institute a new era of admissions practices. It is time to rid our Admissions Office of a policy conceived in elitism, dedicated to the proposition that not all applicants are created equal. I speak, of course, of legacy preference.
It is a widely known fact that, at most selective colleges like Yale, applicants whose parents or other family members attended the school get some advantage when applying to that same school. There are numerous reasons given for this policy: legacy applicants are continuing a loyal family tradition; legacy preference is an effective tie-breaker in admissions; because the school knows their parents, it knows that the student comes from an intellectually rich background that has prepared them well; legacy preference ensures that a school will remain closely connected with its alumni, who may reciprocate generously.
Giving preference to legacy applicants has its roots in the unsavory policy of trying to propagate a white educational elite. According to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and editor of a recent book on legacy preference, “legacy preferences began after World War I, part of an effort to curtail the enrollment of immigrant students, particularly Jews, at Ivy League colleges.” According to Kahlenberg, “minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities but only 6.7 percent of the legacy-applicant pool.”
Having alumni family members is not an insignificant advantage: According to Dean Brenzel, Yale treats “legacy status as a positive factor in the evaluation process, and in recent years legacies have been admitted at about three times the rate of non-legacies.”
“However,” Brenzel cautions, “the degree of advantage does not correspond to the difference in admit rates, because legacy applicants on average present academic qualifications substantially stronger than non-legacy applicants. In other words, the average legacy applicant is more competitive in the process, even without any regard paid to legacy status.”
To me, the question that immediately jumps out is: If the children of alumni are, on average, more qualified to begin with, why do they need any extra boost? If they begin the process already “more competitive,” then many legacy applicants should win admission even without preferred status.
The least cited, though perhaps most important, argument in favor of legacy preference is that it keeps the alma mater on the minds of the alumni. It is no secret that this close connection often entails significant donations on the part of pleased alums. Accepting the children of alumni at higher rates might be seen as an unspoken quid pro quo — we’ll take your kids, you’ll buy us a new library. To some, this trade-off is acceptable, because all students benefit from the resources that can be secured through generous alumni donations.
But there is something about legacy preference that seems inherently unfair, which, according to Kahlenberg, is probably one reason why 75 percent of Americans oppose it.
Legacy status is giving an advantage to those who are already advantaged enough. Yes, exceptions abound, but it is not an unfair generalization to claim that children of those who attended elite colleges are likely to have advantages distinct from those whose parents were not quite so lucky. Coming from a home that, on average, is wealthier and emphasizes education cannot be underestimated. The single greatest correlating factor in whether you will attend college is whether your parent attended college.
Now for the record, I was possibly the beneficiary of legacy status. My mother attended Yale Law School. While I am not sure how much, if at all, this aided my application, it is possible that this connection tilted the scales in my favor. If this is the case, I am eternally grateful. However, like Clarence Thomas acknowledging his debt to affirmative action yet abhorring it nonetheless, I cannot change my stance on legacy preference. It is unjust — benefiting those who don’t need it in a craven attempt to secure donations.
Scott Stern is a sophomore in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .