One year ago today, the News reported the results from their survey on the views of Yale students towards a number of admissions “plus” factors, including legacy status. Only 24 percent of Yale students were in support of the University continuing to consider legacy in admissions. An opinion piece written in the News recently attacked legacy preferences for having “disempowered generations of students.” The piece expressed what many feel intuitively — that Yale’s policy of legacy admissions is unfair — and rightly noted the troubling reasons such a policy came about in the first place. However, the issue is more complicated.
There is no doubt that Yale and other similar institutions originally instituted the legacy policy for troubling reasons — namely, to limit the number of Jewish and Catholic students eager to enroll. But as the policy stands now, the Yale administration would be unwise to abolish it, especially as the time has finally come when the children of Yalies from underrepresented communities are starting to benefit from legacy admissions.
Indeed, there seems to be a widely held belief that Yale would be better off if it were to do away with legacy preferences, and yet we have little evidence that this would be the case. Eliminating legacy admissions would offer no remedy to Yale’s inaccessibility for students from underprivileged backgrounds. Doing so would actually have counterproductive consequences, diverting attention from much larger systemic issues that pose barriers to underrepresented students in the college admissions process.
People present many arguments for keeping legacy admissions, including institutional fundraising, a sense of loyalty to the University and higher attendance rate for admitted students. The earlier column in the News disputes these benefits as they are expressed in an article written last semester by University of Pennsylvania sophomore Agatha Advincula. There are more nuanced ways of articulating these traditional arguments for legacy admissions, but rather than repeating such arguments, I hope to expose another side of the debate.
Many assume that once legacy admissions are abolished, there will be an automatic increase in students from underrepresented communities. What this claim ignores is that almost all of those places will end up going to wealthy white students anyway — Yale’s largest demographic by far. Ending the legacy policy is not the answer.
Concern with disempowerment of communities in the Yale admissions process comes about due to the disproportionate access Yale graduates have to leadership roles in government and the private sector. Abolishing legacy admissions would do nothing to decrease the monopoly that Yale and a select few other colleges hold on such leadership positions. If anything, the alleged intellectual superiority of the student body is how elite colleges now attempt to justify their ever-increasing elite status, thereby excluding students at less prestigious colleges from reaching the same positions. This misleading perception of Yale students’ universal superiority is the real cause of disenfranchisement, and abolishing legacy admissions will not offer a remedy.
Perhaps this “meritocratic” system would be fine or at least preferable to what came before if we were not to consider the major flaws in traditional measures of intelligence in the college process, like the SAT. If there were a “fairer” admissions process without legacy admissions, metrics like standardized exams would have to hold more weight. A Princeton study suggests that for an applicant’s chances of admission to college in the United States, having legacy preference is equivalent on average to having a 160-point higher score on the SAT. Should legacy admissions be abolished, SAT averages would thus increase at elite universities immediately.
In terms of disempowerment, this would have serious consequences because SAT scores are closely correlated with socioeconomic background. Students whose parents’ annual income is over $200,000 will on average receive an SAT score 250 points higher than those whose parents earn between $40,000 and $60,000. As the SAT average creeps up, it will be less likely for Yale to admit talented students from underprivileged backgrounds who may have SATs on the lower end of the scale. In this sense, abolishing legacy preferences would serve to hurt and not help students of underprivileged backgrounds.
Legacy admissions are often falsely blamed for perpetuating the disproportionately high number of wealthy white students at top institutions. Many instances have shown, however, that legacy admissions have no effect on a university’s ability to increase the diversity of its student body, in line with what Yale administrators have stated time and time again. Vanderbilt continued to heavily diversify its student body in the decade following its reinstatement of legacy admissions, while Texas A&M did not see a substantive increase in minority students after abolishing legacy preferences in 2004. Yale itself has had no problem continuing to diversify in recent years despite maintaining legacy admissions.
Furthermore, as a university’s student body becomes more diverse, it goes without saying that the pool of legacy applicants will also become more diverse. There are many impediments to diversifying the Yale student body; legacy admissions is not one of them. Now that a majority of Yale students are people of color, it is unsettling that Yale might decide to deny their own children access to this policy (which has predominantly benefited white applicants in the past) in favor of one based on standardized tests that discriminate against them.
So what can Yale do to actually empower students from underprivileged backgrounds? Engaging with all aspects of the local New Haven community would help demystify the aura of Yale as an elite and out-of-touch institution. This could include class-auditing programs for New Haven residents or exchanges with Connecticut state universities. Focusing on local outreach is highly important for all colleges and universities; as more institutions make the effort, new opportunities will be presented to people from across the country.
Instead of abolishing legacy admissions, let us instead work on other methods of inclusivity. In this way, we can continue to build the University an admirable legacy.
JAMES CARRABINO is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .