A Symposium on Legacy Admissions: Neetu Arnold

Conservatives Don’t Have to Defend Legacy Admissions

Neetu Arnold

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.

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 Neetu Arnold, research fellow at the National Association of Scholars. Follow her on Twitter @neetu_arnold.


“College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.” 

So wrote Chief Justice Roberts when the Supreme Court struck down racial preferences in college admissions. This statement may seem self-evident, but the arguments leveled by Harvard and other affirmative ation defenders show that it is not. These defenders myopically focus on the benefits race-based admissions provide to certain minority groups and deflect when pressed about the harm these preferences cause others. 

The spotlight is now on legacy admissions, but the conversation remains the same. Legacy admissions defenders wax poetic about its benefits for modern dynasties of Harvard and Yale graduates, but they shy away from confronting the harm it causes to those who are kept out of these institutions due to their unlucky circumstances of birth. This harm is significant: legacy applicants to Harvard enjoyed an eight-times-higher probability of admission, all else equal. This boost is on par with that experienced by Hispanic applicants under Harvard’s affirmative action policy.

With this in mind, I will review some of the most common arguments for legacy admissions and explain why they are too weak to justify these preferences. 

Preserving Tradition

Some argue that legacy preferences bring great benefits to the families of alumni. Sentimental as it is, this point is largely irrelevant to whether legacy preferences should exist. Even if legacy admissions allows for the creation of such a family tradition among its beneficiaries, a first-generation admit is likely to benefit even more from the socioeconomic advantages an elite university degree provides. 

A related argument is that students admitted under legacy admissions help create and preserve a long-lasting institutional culture. This culture fosters deep loyalty and investment among its alumni and earns the university influence in broader society. But legacy defenders view the cultural contributions of legacy students through rose-colored glasses. Just as easily as defenders cite positive examples of legacy students, others can cite examples of their misbehavior. At my alma mater, I observed a general apathy among legacy admits, who often took their presence at an elite university for granted. They were overrepresented among the serial party-goers, the class-skippers, and the drug-users. There is also evidence against the claim that legacy admissions increases alumni donations. 

It is also possible to create university culture without legacy preferences. MIT and Caltech, for instance, have powerful institutional cultures focused on technology and innovation. 

Don’t Give Ground to the Left

Those skeptical of banning legacy admissions often have a partisan justification for their position. If the Left is attacking legacy admissions on racial grounds, then the Right must defend it so as to not encourage them any further. Concession shows weakness. 

This is a misguided political strategy. If legacy admissions does benefit anyone, it benefits left-wing universities like Harvard and Princeton. A wiser strategy would be to defuse the Left’s anger about legacy admissions by refusing to defend it. Universities can contend with the public’s anger. 

Private Institutions Can Do Whatever They Want

The libertarian defense of legacy admissions holds that private colleges and universities should be allowed to do whatever they want. I largely agree with this stance on legal grounds. But if it were really true that private institutions could do whatever they want, we should have supported Harvard’s right to discriminate against Asian Americans. Yes, civil rights law now prevents private schools from doing so, but even this civil rights law should be opposed on the same principle. I suspect that few proponents of this argument would be willing to take it to its logical conclusion. 

Connecting the Smart and Rich

The best argument for legacy admissions is that it connects talent with resources. This argument is compelling, but it lacks evidence. A couple of case studies and my own personal experience, furthermore, make me skeptical that this argument holds water. MIT and Caltech alumni create many successful businesses and seem to have little trouble acquiring investors for their ideas. 

A simple explanation for why this story doesn’t play out in real life is that similar students tend to congregate at colleges and universities. I saw this at my alma mater: legacy admits tended to know and associate with other legacy admits, while non-legacy admits tended to know more non-legacy admits. Sure, there was a non-trivial amount of mixing, but the usual rules of social interactions still applied. 

Conclusion

Supporters of legacy admissions haven’t provided strong evidence for why we should harm non-legacy applicants. 

I should add that I have no personal reason to oppose legacy admissions. In fact, I have every reason to support it. My future children will be legacy applicants at both Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. This system will benefit them greatly if it exists in twenty years. Yet I still oppose legacy admissions because it is unfair. We should not support unfair policies just because we personally benefit from them. 

The anti-affirmative action message from the Right was one of merit, equal opportunity, and fairness. We should stick to these values if we want to be taken seriously in the future.


Image: Adobe Stock

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