Comment
Twenty years ago, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, then patriarch of one of Americas most famous political families, took on a fight to reform selective college admissions. At the time, it was not a popular fight with liberals in government. Many members of Congress benefited from practices like the legacy preference for the progeny of alumni, or made use of it and other even less transparent levers in selective higher educations shadowy admissions system. The senator, though, despite his personal history and extensive family interests, considered the legacy preference in particular an anachronism that had no place in todays world, and was moved by the disparate racial and economic impact associated with various other admission practices. As his senior education counsel, I was steeped in the overall admissions reform fight of that time, which we ultimately lost when momentum dissipated after the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious affirmative action in 2003 in the Gratz and Grutter cases.
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Today the college admissions issue is back writ large, prompted by two new antiaffirmative action Supreme Court cases. If progressives respond to the likely Supreme Court decisions striking down race-based affirmative action, which are expected to come this spring, by simply abolishing the legacy preference and providing general support for race-neutral means to achieve race-conscious admissions goals, theyll be punching their political ticket on the cheap and not making much of a difference at selective colleges. Much more needs to be done to ensure that selective colleges perform their valuable societal role of operating as engines of socioeconomic mobility, as well as centers of knowledge and skill development. The truly progressive position on college admission is not only to end the pernicious and pervasive practices that unfairly favor the wealthy, but to go even further by changing the financial incentives underlying selective college admissions.
Affirmative Action for the Rich
To be clear, the legacy preference matters and should be banned. Nationally, 80 percent of four-year colleges that accept less than 25 percent of applicants (the schools that we designate as selective) maintain a legacy preference. Its valuable to students, worth the equivalent of an extra 160 points on ones SAT. Beneficiaries are overwhelmingly white and from high-wealth backgrounds. At Harvard, where over 1,000 high school valedictorians are turned down every year, admission rates are more than five times higher for legacies than nonlegacies. At Notre Dame, in most years 25 percent of enrolled students are legacy-preference beneficiaries. Boston College reported in 2020 that legacy status was a more important consideration in admission decisions than whether an applicant is the first in their family to attend college.
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Twenty years ago, we targeted the legacy preference at elite public and private colleges by emphasizing its continued outsize influence on American life. While it benefits only approximately 1 in 8 students enrolled at a relatively small number of schools, the relevant institutions disproportionately produce future leaders in the halls of wealth and government who go on to affect millions. All but one of our current Supreme Court justices attended Harvard or Yale. Five of the past six presidents graduated from an Ivy League institution. The list of power-player beneficiaries is long. In addition to being fairer, however, a ban would, we believed, mean that a greater number of seats at elite colleges would be filled by students who are more talented and from less privileged backgrounds than legacy preference beneficiaries.
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Thats still true, but now we know more about the way selective colleges handle their admissions. Brown University recently indicated, for example, in responding to the idea of a potential legacy preference ban, that legacy applicants compete with applicants whose parents went to other elite colleges, not with first-generation or low-income applicantswith the implication being that a legacy ban would not advantage the latter groups very much. And thats the position held at a school where 70 percent of students come from the top income quintile, 4 percent come from low-income households, and its total endowment exceeds $6.5 billion.
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Its not as if there arent a sufficient number of talented, more deserving students from working-class and low-income households available for schools like Brown to recruit and enroll. One in five students who scores in the 90
th
percentile or higher on college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT comes from a Pell Granteligible household. Most of those achieve their scores and grades having overcome greater obstacles than students from well-to-do families have. But Brown and most other selective colleges like it have an unspoken limit on just how many working-class students they want to enroll. Why? All too many of these colleges value their financial well-being more than their supposed (and tax-advantaged!) role of serving the public.
Tip of the Iceberg
This value system is apparent in a rigged admissions problem that goes well beyond the legacy preference. While use of the legacy preference is the most odiousand easily excisedway selective colleges favor the wealthy in whom they admit and enroll, more widely used and cumulatively effective are admissions policies like binding early decision, whereby students must commit to a school prior to seeing a financial aid package. Like legacy students, those who apply early decision are disproportionately upper-income, because they dont need to compare financial aid packages. They live in well-resourced communities and go to well-resourced high schools, where they learn that applying early is worth the equivalent of a 100-point boost on ones SAT. In fact, students from the wealthiest ZIP codes are twice as likely to apply early decision as regular decision. Those who attend private high schools are three-and-a-half times as likely to apply early as their public school counterparts. Selective colleges fill anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of their classes with early decision students; thats two to five times as many students who benefit from a legacy preference.
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Unlike the legacy preference, which some selective schools, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University, have come to shun, and others, early decision has been growing in popularity among the well-heeled and colleges that cater to them. Between 2015 and 2020, Smith College increased the percentage of seats it fills with early decision students from 35 percent to 58 percent. Boston University tripled its percentage in that same period and increased nearly 9 more percentage points this year, to now over 66 percent early decision enrollees. At Bates College, 81 percent of stude