We progressives hail opportunity, egalitarianism and diversity. Yet here’s our dirty little secret: Some of our most liberal bastions in America rely on a system of inherited privilege that benefits rich whites at the expense of almost everyone else.
I’m talking about “legacy preferences” that elite universities give to children of graduates. These universities constitute some of the world’s greatest public goods, but they rig admissions to favor applicants who already have had every privilege in life.
A lawsuit against Harvard University has put a focus on admissions policies that the plaintiffs argue hurt Asian-American applicants. I disagree with the suit, seeing it as a false flag operation that aims to dismantle affirmative action for black and Latino students.
But the suit has shone a light on a genuine problem: legacy, coupled with preferences for large donors and for faculty children. Most of the best universities in America systematically discriminate in favor of affluent, privileged alumni children. If that isn’t enough to get your kids accepted, donate $5 million to the university, and they’ll get a second look.
There’s disagreement about how much advantage legacy confers. Material submitted in the trial now underway suggests that over a six-year period, 33.6 percent of legacy children were admitted to Harvard, compared with 5.9 percent of nonlegacy applicants.
Seven years ago, a Harvard doctoral student named Michael Hurwitz used sophisticated statistical techniques and found that having a parent graduate increased the chance of admission at 30 top colleges by 45 percentage points. For example, a candidate who otherwise had a 20 percent shot became a 65 percent prospect with a parent who had graduated from that school.
The top universities say that legacy preferences help create a multigenerational community of alumni, and that’s a legitimate argument. They also note that rewarding donors helps encourage donations that can be used to finance scholarships for needy kids.
Yet on balance, I’m troubled that some of America’s greatest institutions grant a transformative opportunity disproportionately to kids already steeped in advantage, from violin lessons to chess tournaments to SAT coaching. On top of that, letting wealthy families pay for extra consideration feels, to use a technical term, yucky.
Liberals object to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing tycoons to buy political influence, so why allow tycoons to buy influence in college admissions?
More broadly, what happened to equal opportunity and meritocracy? They may be ideals rather than reality, but why defend a formal structure of hereditary privilege and monetary advantage in accessing top universities?
The larger problem is that 38 colleges, including five from the Ivy League, had more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. Overall, children from the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend Ivy League colleges than children from the bottom 20 percent.
When family background already matters so much, do America’s best universities really want to put their thumb on the scales to help already privileged children — or allow their families to make a donation that buys a second thumb to press on the scales?
The student journalists of The Harvard Crimson editorialized: “Legacy preference is, in the simplest terms, wrong. It takes opportunities from those with less and turns them over to those who have more.”