I want to set aside for a moment the question of race-based affirmative action. There are legitimate arguments for both sides of that debate, and though I do have my own opinion, it need not enter this discussion of a second, more pernicious form of affirmative action: legacy preference. 

My division of affirmative action into two halves — race and class — is somewhat self-serving, I have to admit. Racial affirmative action is an intricate policy problem in which any good solutions bring uncomfortable financial concerns. On the other hand, legacy preference might be resolvable in an afternoon. It seems like all universities would have to do is publicly announce they will no longer be preferencing legacies.

I often hear the argument that legacy preference is a way of rewarding alumni and encouraging donations. My response has always been that meritocracy is not a take-what-you-will proposition; race and legacy are both inheritances and are thus distributed in an entirely unmeritocratic way. Legacy admits are also more likely to have higher parental incomes — at Duke University, for example, the household income of legacy students is, on average, $240,000 a year — which brings with it a host of benefits in K-12 education and nutrition. When seeking meritocratic competition, there are only so many head starts one can get before the whole event begins to look comically unjust.

The primary driver of debate over racial affirmative action is the question of what side makes the process most “fair,” with fair meaning that the most deserving students get spots at universities. I find it hard to believe that legacy status enters this equation at all. What academic ability does it demonstrate? What personal character does it showcase? What historical barrier has it overcome? Legacy status does not fit within a framework for college admissions that prioritizes students who deserve the spots on the basis of their own qualities.

One might respond that elite schools — which are the focus of most classic affirmative action debates — are not moral actors and don’t need to uphold some cultural goal of meritocracy. They don’t seek to do the most good for the most people, they seek to reward their customers. Applicants whose parents are perceived by the university as more likely to donate, then, can actually deserve sports the most. If this is the case, though, universities cannot act as fronts for opportunity, and their customers — that’s us, at the University of Michigan — cannot pretend that our place is earned any more than a product is “earned” when one pays for it.

The University does not indicate the extent to which legacy preference affects consideration of student applications, only that it does play a role. Other universities, though — even those who have made public strides toward diversity — give a rather dismal indication of what the situation might be like here. I haven’t found any publicly available data on exactly how much legacy affects applicants to the University, however, so it’s impossible to say with certainty.

It’s important that legacy preference receives proper consideration in larger dialogues about class here at the University. It’s often discussed as just a minor policy with minimal impact — one aspect of a holistic application! — which obscures the actual consequences of the policy.

At Princeton University, for example, an article written in 2010 seemed to make the correlation between legacy status and an applicant’s chance of admission at the school from about 9 percent to over 40 percentFurther research indicates that the full effect of legacy status fluctuates depending on one’s SAT scores — when in the 1250-1290 range, for example, legacy provides a 13.6 percent boost; when in the 1400-1440 range, it rises to more than 19.9 percent. 

There are institutions that have run admissions experiments which do not include legacy, thankfully. MIT and Caltech, for example, have ended legacy preference, and though reputation is partially up for subjective evaluation, I’m not aware of any status drop for either of these schools or their students.

In the end, either elite universities are pure businesses, and can act in their self-defined best interests, or they are something different, and should thus be compelled to uphold a cultural expectation of meritocracy. We cannot have it both ways, though. If the most capable students should attend the best schools, then college applicants cannot be arbitrarily advantaged by class any more than they can by race.

Legacy preference is a form of affirmative action rooted in class that extends privilege to the already privileged. Its existence both here at the University and elsewhere directly impedes efforts to “provide an uncommon education for the common man,” and should be ended immediately.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu

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