CounterCurrent: Legacy Admissions Shoutout

Chance Layton

CounterCurrent: Week of 7/31/2023

Over the last few weeks, every major news outlet and social media platform has been discussing one story: legacy admissions. Just this morning, I decided to take a scroll on Twitter (my bad—I mean “X”) and was immediately served a Tweet (they’re still called that, right?) of President John F. Kennedy’s application essay to Harvard. Two things stuck out: its length and its appeal to legacy. In the last two sentences, he writes,

Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a "Harvard man" is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

John Kennedy was a bright man, surely, but would he have gained admission on his own merit—not on the basis of his father’s previous attendance at Harvard?

The debate on legacy admissions is well worth having. Now that the Supreme Court has decided that racial preferences in college admissions do, in fact, violate the 14th Amendment, should we go all in on merit or accept that schools have some reasonable need to consider metrics beyond academics and extracurriculars?

This week’s CounterCurrent features “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” of the legacy admissions debate.

For “The Good,” we have National Association of Scholars Board of Directors member Bruce Gilley’s essay, “A House, Not a Hotel.” Gilley’s argument centers on the many purposes of a university, as he says:

Colleges and universities are long-standing institutions, very long in some cases, that are obliged to consider past generations as well as current and future ones.

Admirable, indeed. Colleges and universities “are not supermarkets” explains Gilley: they have obligations to whom they sell their products. Universities shouldn’t offer Black Friday sales for the masses. Prestige and value mean something. They develop through a “special duty of care”: the type of care, Gilley argues, that can only come from placing legacy over “naked individualism.”

Starring as “The Bad” is “Losing First-Generation Legacies?” by Joshua T. Katz, who was recently elected to the NAS Board of Directors. Katz argues that legacy admissions does serve a purpose: to incubate talent and to serve upward economic mobility across generations. Over the last few decades, colleges and universities have sought to admit students that don’t fit the particular mold of the “Harvard Man” by accepting more and more first-gen students. These and legacy students, he notes anecdotally, “impressed him the most.” The success of these students likely comes from their common ground—“others wonder … whether they really deserve to be there.” Colleges and universities have taken a chance on these students, who likely feel greater allegiance to the institution. It would seem cruel to not offer first-gen students the same opportunities that previous generations were offered, as Katz notes:

In the coming decades, more first-gen alumni will want their children to follow in their footsteps and will be unhappy if legacy admissions is eliminated just in time for them not to benefit from it.

And finally, for “The Ugly.” NAS Research Fellow Neetu Arnold breaks down the most common arguments in favor of legacy admissions and remains unswayed in her article, “Conservatives Don’t Have to Defend Legacy Admissions.” Arnold’s argument against legacy admissions centers on a central principle: college admissions is a zero-sum game. For every spot given to a legacy admit, someone else must lose an opportunity. All of the arguments, she finds, “haven’t provided strong evidence for why we should harm non-legacy applicants.” Moreover, she adds:

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.

We are likely to hear more about affirmative action in the coming months and years. After all, the Department of Education has opened an investigation into Harvard’s use of donor and legacy admissions.

Keep an eye out for future articles in our symposium on legacy admissions here! If you’d like to contribute to this symposium, or write for the NAS either in Academic Questions or in Minding The Campus, send us an email at [email protected].

Until next week.

Chance Layton
Director of Communications
National Association of Scholars

P.S.: I have some exciting news to pass along from Kali Jerrard, who normally writes this newsletter:

Dear Readers,

For the next 8 weeks, I will be taking time off so I can recover and get to know my newborn baby (surprise!). I look forward to returning as the author of CounterCurrent soon, but in the meantime, you'll get to hear from accomplished NAS staff and guest contributors. Au revoir, for we will see one another again soon.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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