Even after Michigan voters stamped out preferences for minority applicants five months ago, universities across the state and country continue to give legacy students similar advantages. If the movement to ban affirmative action was intended to make college admissions fairer by considering only merit, yet legacy students are still given preferences, then what exactly entails being qualified?
A study by Princeton University found that among groups traditionally given a boost in college admissions (underrepresented minorities, athletes and legacy students), legacy students – those who had a relative attend the same university – were performing the worst academically. Using data from 1999, when admissions offices across the country were permitted to use rubrics that quantified an advantage given based on race (like the University’s points system), researchers weighted the dropout rates of each group of students with the amount of preference they were given. They found that the 7 percent dropout rate for legacy students was higher than both minorities and athletes relative to the preference given to each.
Legacy students are given preferences in admissions because their parents are then more likely to donate to the University. In the age of slashed state-funding, it is understandable why colleges continue to do this. While that doesn’t make legacy preferences any fairer, it does allude to the complexities of college admission which proponents of Proposal 2 were all too happy to overlook.
Affirmative action opponents portray the preferences given to minority students as unwarranted advantages granted to undeserving students. By overlooking other groups receiving preferences like legacy students, supporters of Michigan’s so-called civil rights initiative were pushing a policy that was both ignorant of reality and inherently racist in its unqualified indictment of minorities. And voters bought into the rhetoric.
The problem is that some students – like legacy students – apply to the University with misleading high school accolades that students from lower-income or high minority urban high schools do not have. Affirmative action is necessary to help identify qualified minority students who can compete at the college level.
A larger problem is that people often narrowly define who is unfairly advantaged in admissions. Not only are legacy students getting a noticeable advantage in the admissions process at universities, they also have the added advantage of having a parent who has successfully graduated from that university. Underrepresented minorities often do not have the latter advantage, and now Michigan and several other states are denying them the former too. Is that really fair?
To create an admissions system in which all people are evaluated by what they have accomplished, the foundations of the debate about fairness, equality and advantage need to be restructured. Why are people so uncomfortable with minorities getting a boost in admissions while they continue to ignore boosts given to legacy students and athletes? Part of this debate needs to be focused on answering the original question of how exactly do we define “qualified.”
While the answer to that question is not simple, it certainly cannot be addressed with merely test scores and GPAs. It inevitably has to consider the many nuanced situational factors that affect the achievements we see on paper.
And that’s affirmative action.