A Symposium on Legacy Admissions: Hilde Kahn

Go Ahead and End Legacy Admissions—It May Not Change Much

Hilde Kahn

Editor’s Note: The National Association of Scholars has begun a symposium on legacy admissions. Legacy admissions has become a political issue in the wake of the SFFA v. Harvard decision. It has become so in good measure due to tactical polemic by supporters of race discrimination, who wrongly seek to create a moral equivalence between race discrimination and legacy admissions, and who equally wrongly seek to use legacy admissions to substantiate their claims that America and its colleges and universities are “systemically racist.” Yet even though legacy admissions is not racially discriminatory, it is subject to a variety of other critiques and defenses—where NAS members and staff appear to be split in their judgments about the value of legacy admissions.

Precisely because of this split, we thought it would be useful to publish a symposium on the subject during the coming months. Click here to read the rest of the contributions.

We encourage NAS members and staff—and, indeed, any interested reader—to contribute to this symposium. Please contact David Randall ([email protected]) and/or Neetu Arnold ([email protected]) if you would like to submit a contribution.

Our next essay is by Hilde Kahn. Kahn has written on education policy and has served on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s National Working Group on Advanced Education. She is the author of Head of School, a novel about a gifted school’s equity crisis.

When the president of Wesleyan University announced that the school would no longer favor legacy applicants, he explained that the practice had played a “negligible” role in admissions. Perhaps he wondered whether the school’s legacy admissions numbers would be affected by the policy change. There are several reasons to expect that they won’t be.

First, it will be extremely difficult for schools like Wesleyan to control their impulse to favor their own. The practice is so ingrained, so integral to the history of elite schools, that it’s hard to imagine any of them carrying on without it. As with racial preferences, even after a university no longer asks applicants to indicate whether their parents or other relatives attended the school, an applicant will still be free to reveal legacy ties (e.g., in an essay), allowing an admissions officer—assuming such decisions are still made by humans—to be swayed by it, consciously or unconsciously. And, where alumni interviews are allowed to continue, it would be downright odd for an applicant to fail to mention that both his grandfather and his mother attended the school. More to the point, if a school wants to admit the less-than-stellar child of a wealthy alum, it can still do so, so long as it attributes the needed bump to family wealth rather than school ties. The same applies to the academically challenged legacy fencer or equestrian.

Another reason why ending legacy admissions may not reduce the number of legacy admits is that many legacy applicants to elite schools don’t need—and therefore don’t receive—a boost in the admissions process. As Bruce Gilley wrote in these pages, universities are the ultimate beneficiaries of legacy admissions policies, and not only because of the donations that flow from those applicants’ families: Universities benefit because students who might otherwise have chosen other schools choose them.

Not that we should pretend for one minute that all legacy applicants are motivated by a burning desire to walk in their forefathers’ footsteps. The elite admissions game is not only highly competitive but also a bit of a crapshoot—alumni applicants understand this better than most. Knowing that they may be treated more favorably by their family school, they may believe that their chances of admission are somewhat enhanced at the legacy institution. When considering whether to apply early admission to their first-choice school, with which they have no ties, or to their second-choice school, which their father attended, they might choose the latter, particularly when they would be more than happy to attend either one. All three of my children made this very choice. The legacy weight—and pressure—multiplied with each sibling’s admission. Whether, after colleges end legacy admissions, legacy and non-legacy applicants and their respective families will view the process differently and make different choices is impossible to predict.

A third reason is that, as Joshua Katz and others have written, with each passing decade, fewer and fewer legacies fit the tennis-sweater-wearing, polo-stick-wielding stereotype. In my children’s case, their father was a first-generation student and a full-scholarship recipient whose widowed mother ironed middle-class households’ laundry to put food on the table. This diversification of the legacy applicant pool forms the crux of Katz’s defense of legacy admissions; my point is that no such defense may be necessary. The children of alumni parents who themselves hailed from economically disadvantaged and/or racial minority backgrounds have a good chance of being accepted, with or without a legacy boost. Their parents were exceptional—many of them will be as well.

Each time one of our children applied to Stanford, my husband received the “reduce expectations” letter, which respectfully but plainly stated that legacy status was not a guarantee of admission. While legacy applicants were admitted at three times the rate of non-legacy applicants, the letter explained, fewer than 15% of legacy applicants were admitted. Today, the percentage of legacy admits and overall admits, respectively, may be closer to 3% and 1% (Stanford stopped disclosing its overall admissions percentage five years ago, ostensibly to prevent this rapidly diminishing figure from encouraging the wrong kind of competition). If eliminating legacy preferences were to bring this 3:1 ratio down to 2:1, would you consider that a meaningful change?

Gilley was right when he argued that a university is not a supermarket. The journey toward a degree is less about purchasing a product than it is about engaging in a process where each member contributes as much as he takes away. Jerome Karabel’s oft-cited history of Ivy League admissions musters over 500 pages in support of the thesis that the Ivy League, having anointed itself the incubator of America’s leaders, has for over a century periodically overhauled its admissions policies and procedures in an attempt to continue to fulfill this mandate and thereby maintain its societal relevance.

As Neetu Arnold argues, MIT and Caltech have built powerful institutional cultures around technology and innovation without resorting to legacy preferences. But these two schools are the exception that proves the rule. The bulk of this country’s hyper-elite institutions have set their sights on nurturing politicians, lawyers, business and financial executives, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and creatives. This is why they don’t aim to admit a class made up of exclusively the highest-scoring and hardest-working students, and why they perennially admit fewer Asian students than they would were they to follow a more meritocratic admissions process. Ivy League schools are not engineering schools, and they don’t want their campus to look or feel like engineering schools. If most elite schools followed the same admissions practices as MIT and, in particular, Caltech (which, unlike MIT, does not award admissions bumps even for athletes), the Harvard/UNC cases would never have been litigated, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

Elite school administrators may want us to believe that it’s their offerings—professors, curriculum, and atmosphere—that make up their secret sauce, but deep down they know that their schools’ elite status rests largely on the decisions made at the admissions table. We can outlaw legacy admissions, but the composition of the student body may change less than we expect.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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