Preferring Merit: Why Racial Preferences Are Worse than Legacy Admissions

Peter Wood

Shikha Dalmia writing in the current issue of Reason magazine attacks the widespread admissions practice at colleges and universities of favoring the children of alumni. Such "legacy" applicants typically get a substantial boost and often displace other applicants who outshine them on test scores and high school GPAs. Dalmia also observes that the substantial movement to eliminate racial preferences in college admissions isn't matched by a movement to eliminate legacy preferences:

[T]here's no comparable effort to get rid of legacy preferences. Even more troubling, many prominent opponents of racial preferences greet suggestions to get rid of legacies, the mother of all preferences, with a perfunctory nod-or a gaping yawn.

Is that so? I have been among those calling for the elimination of racial preferences in college admissions and I know first-hand many of the leaders of the movement. Dalmia, I think, misrepresents the situation.

But first, I need to get on record: I agree that legacy preferences are a blight and should be eliminated. I don't think that's a perfunctory nod or a gaping yawn. It is, however, something less than the concentrated disdain that is due to racial preferences. What follows is my attempt to explain why, of two misguided policies, one is worse.

Most of us who oppose racial preferences in college admissions also oppose racial preferences in many other contexts, such as access to schools, government contracting, and public accommodations. Ward Connerly's organization is called the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI). The battleground of racial preferences in college admissions is only one of several. It ranks as the most visible because it is the most adjudicated, from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Bakke decision in 1978 to its landmark Grutter decision in 2003. Ward Connerly sat on the California Board of Regents, 1993-2005, which gave him a good vantage point to see how racial preferences in higher education work-including after they were outlawed by California's Proposition 209, the statewide referendum passed in 1996. This makes racial preferences in college admissions salient, but ACRI and the fight against racial preferences in American society would continue if racial preferences in college admissions were to end entirely.

Or to put this another way, the movement to end racial preferences in college admissions is not aimed at achieving the perfection of higher education. It is aimed at moving American society beyond its obsession with racial classification. It is a movement aimed at changing our culture, not just our colleges. Its ideal is that we learn better to see one another as individuals rather than as inhabitants of social coordinates defined by race and ethnicity. That ideal extends beyond what referenda and government can do, but it does entail changing some state policies, namely those that reinforce racial identity by means of public preferences.

The anti-preference referenda that passed by substantial majorities in California, Washington, and Michigan certainly drew support from many voters who took a simpler position. They opposed racial and gender preferences on the grounds that they are unfair. Group preferences reward some people and disadvantage others not on the basis of personal merit, achievement, or aptitude, but because of their assignment to some identity group.

That's a worthy reason to oppose racial preferences and it is not hard to see that people who sense that unfairness might also sense the unfairness of granting college admissions preferences to the children of alumni. On the other hand, it is a bit hard to imagine that Americans would summon the resources and political will to create a successful national campaign to overturn legacy admissions. The cause just doesn't have the moral gravity of the fight against racial preferences.

That's because the racial preference fight is rooted deep in American history and touches everyone, whereas displeasure with alumni legacies is both recent and of primary concern to very few. We have been arguing over how government should privilege or dis-privilege race since the debate over the Constitution in the 1780s. We amended that Constitution in the wake of the Civil War to end slavery, guarantee due process and equal protection of the laws, and eliminate racial qualifications for voting. The Civil Rights movement of mid-twentieth century culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that invalidated Jim Crow laws and compelled the end of illegal racial discrimination. Perhaps average Americans these days are too wobbly with their history to recite all this but, at some level, this is a history we feel even if we don't exactly remember it. We know that granting preferences on the basis of race is a tricky business. Discriminating on the basis of skin color even for ostensibly benign reasons inevitably waters the roots of inequality.

As for alumni legacies, I don't want to make light of the problem, but it is hard to find any parallel history. The Constitution prohibited titles of nobility and protected patents, but it generally left Americans free to transmit what privileges they could to their children. And we have never amended the Constitution or passed acts of Congress to forestall favoritism by colleges toward the children of alumni.

Alumni preferences do rankle and perhaps they should rankle more, but they are not in the same league of transgressions against the larger moral order as racial preferences. The latter conduce to a regime of group resentment on campus and dovetail with diversity policies that reinforce group separatism and resentment, and with curricula that emphasize the centrality of oppression in Western civilization. I know of nothing like this that stems from legacy admissions. The legacy admittees are not corralled into special groups, lectured on their allegedly shared qualities, shunted into special "legacy" dorms, celebrated on special legacy days, taught a legacy-centric curriculum, or granted private legacy-only graduation ceremonies. Their privileged status begins and ends, as far as I know, with the admissions office. Or perhaps it extends to the development office, which draws a bead of them as likely targets for additional giving.

Legacy admissions in college, in other words, are a different scale of phenomenon than racial preferences, which are part of a much larger architecture of racial separatism on campus.

Dalmia disagrees. She sees legacy admissions as a sneaky way of maintaining white privilege: "Legacy preferences are an especially terrible idea for tax-supported public universities, since they make it possible for rich, white, and less qualified kids to take seats that are at least in part supported by the tax dollars of poor, minority families." Private universities likewise buttress the privileges of the privileged in maintaining legacy preferences.

Of course, legacy admissions apply to all alumni, not just whites and not just wealthy alumni, but this seems a weak reed with which to defend the system. Moreover, as the nation moves away from racial preferences, the invidious effect of legacy preferences becomes more pronounced.

Dalmia's strongest argument, however, is that legacy programs run counter to the principle that colleges and universities should be centered on academic and intellectual merit. Legacy admissions programs almost always undercut this principle by admitting students who, on average, have less impressive credentials. (She cites Middlebury College as an exception. Somehow Middlebury has managed to attract legacy students who have better credentials than other Middlebury students. Perhaps it takes alumni parents to sell intellectually talented kids on the prospect of four years in rural Vermont.)

On matters of academic principles, Dalmia's sense of proportion seems off. In her eyes, legacies are "the mother of all preferences," "the original sin of admissions," "repugnant," and "no less damaging" than racial preferences. These formulations mistake the place of racial admissions preferences in maintaining a larger system of racial division, but they also mistake the disorder in American higher education. Legacy admissions are a substantial problem, but American higher education is endlessly inventive in finding ways to evade and compromise its core principles. It skimps everywhere it can, not just in admissions. Lightweight college presidents swoon over diversity while their general-education programs yearly creep to the asymptote of perfected political correctness. College financial aid officers who are on the take vie with study abroad officers whose scam is free luxury vacations. Faculties are dominated by ideologues who high-mindedly defend the "academic freedom" to turn their classrooms into political soapboxes. I work for an organization that seeks to recall American higher education to its senses, and most days I seem to be strolling the boulevards of a city that is no longer sure of the difference between architecture and demolition.

I'd gladly eliminate legacy admissions, as Caltech has, and I join Dalmia in calling for "openly publishing admissions criteria" in a manner that guarantees "prospective students that those who score below minimum requirements won't be admitted ahead of those who do."

That said, I think the ban on legacies would be a step in the right direction. For most colleges and universities, legacy admissions are a recruitment strategy that helps to attract qualified if not top-quality applicants. They need the numbers, and sustaining connections to the alumni parents in this fashion usually helps bring in donations too. Colleges like to build strong, many-stranded relationships with families. It isn't obvious that legacy programs leave a trail of academic devastation in their wake. They run against the principle of meritocracy and colleges should therefore forego the minor institutional advantages they provide. But eliminating them won't touch any deeper issues in American society and it won't cure the fever of greed and politics that ails higher education. That's not a yawn; it's a sigh.

*Comments here are my own, and are not necessarily endorsed by the NAS or its members. NAS, from time to time, does issue statements on important news. These are so labeled.
Peter Wood

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