An Aristocracy of Talent at America’s Elite Universities

Aristocracy of Talent, Talent at American Schools, Talent in Admissions
Thomas Jefferson endeavored to create an aristocracy of talent at America’s colleges (photo credit: Derrick Smith).

One of our nation’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, had a dream that America’s universities would be aristocracies of talent and, as such, they would be beacons to the world. Fast forward to 2019 and we would argue that America’s highly selective colleges still aim to realize the dream of Jefferson, as evidenced by their admissions process. Our nation’s elite universities aim to admit singularly talented students, students who excel in one particular area through which they can change the world. But we firmly believe there are two practices within the college admissions process that are antithetical to Jefferson’s ideal — two practices we aim to change.

Legacy Admission is Antithetical to an Aristocracy of Talent

Legacy Admission, the practice of offering preferential treatment to the children and grandchildren of a school’s alumni-base, does not foster an aristocracy of talent based on merit. Rather, it fosters an aristocracy based on birth and privilege that is antithetical to our nation’s core values. But we are not dreamers. We are realists. We understand that the admission of some legacies allows our nation’s elite colleges to educate remarkably talented young people who happen to come from low-income families who — without assistance — wouldn’t be able to subsidize the cost of a college education from one of our nation’s elite colleges.

Yes, we’ve called for an end to legacy admission. But really it’s our opening salvo in what we hope will ultimately be a negotiation to end this archaic practice of offering preferential treatment to some students based on birth. And what is a reasonable compromise, in our view? 25% of admitted students should not be the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of a school’s alumni-based. That’s preposterous and yet such a statistic is not uncommon at America’s elite universities. Instead, we propose shrinking this pool significantly, only offering preferential treatment to the children and grandchildren of major alumni donors. Yes, we realize it’s an imperfect solution and we’re further offering advantage to the uber-wealthy. But we need those donors to be able to educate so many deserving students. We don’t, however, need the vast majority of legacy applicants whose parents’ donations add up to about a fraction of one or two huge donors.

Athletic Recruitment in Posh Sports is Antithetical to an Aristocracy of Talent

We also believe that assigning slots to certain sports in admissions is antithetical to the ideal of an aristocracy of talent. But, again, we’re not dreamers. We’re realists. We understand that football is a money-generating sport, that slots need to be reserved in admissions for football recruits so the football team can be competitive. We understand the importance of reserving slots in admissions for basketball recruits because generally a further a team advances in March Madness, the more applications that school will receive the subsequent admissions cycle. But squash? Tennis? Water polo? Equestrian? Do our nation’s elite colleges really need to reserve slots in admissions for some of these sports (keep in mind that at some schools, these sports aren’t varsity but are instead club and are afforded no slots in admissions….but if they are varsity, you bet they get slots).

And so just as we proposed shrinking the legacy pool of admits, we propose eliminating slots in admissions for posh sports that aren’t revenue-generating for the university. This will free up slots to deserving, singularly talented students who will contribute greatly to the aristocracy of talent at America’s elite universities.


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