Richard Kalenberg wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last week condemning affirmative action at universities for the children of alumni and arguing that legacy preferencing has not received the kind of legal and public scrutiny it deserves. Kalenberg cited three typical justifications for legacy preferencing: building loyalty among alumni, sustaining tradition and increasing donations. He pointed out that, in studies that control for the wealth of alumni, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving. In other words, the standard practice of giving the children of alumni a boost in admissions does not bring in more money to the University. It neither improves the quality of undergraduate education, nor provides more students in need with financial aid. The reasons behind most alumni giving are less self-interested than the University gives them credit for.
Kalenberg’s discussion missed a fourth reason universities—at least the most competitive ones—might want to preference legacy applicants: legacy preference is one easy way to increase matriculation rates. Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and other competing schools all have very high rates of their admits accepting offers of admission despite, presumably, having largely overlapping applicant pools. They are usually rejecting the applicants that peer institutions accept, which helps them in the US News rankings. One way to manage this is by giving preference to the children of alumni who will not receive the same preference at competing schools. Everyone’s matriculation rates stay high, and everyone is happy.
None of these reasons justifies legacy admissions. Such blind and even selfish interests are ultimately preserving elements of blue-blooded practices that have traditionally (and rightly) given selective universities a bad name, and are doing the further injustice of making some of the remarkable students at Stanford who are the children of alumni (including many who would get in and soar, anyway) feel that their admission is seen as suspect. They are helping to preclude deserving students who don’t have a family history at elite American universities from changing that fact. And they are reinforcing public views of top schools as private clubs, views Stanford in particular should take a lead in dispelling.
It is time for legacy preferencing in admissions to go.