Legacy Admission Violates 26 U.S. Code Section 170

Legacy Admission, Admission of Legacies, Legacy Applicants

There was an excellent editorial yesterday in “The Dartmouth” calling for an end to the practice of legacy admission.

Legacy admission, or the practice of offering preferential treatment in admission to the progeny of alumni of a college, runs counter to the American Dream. It’s a point we’ve raised time and again on the pages of our college admissions blog. It’s because we firmly believe in an American meritocracy — where folks of all races, from across the socio-economic spectrum, of any sexual orientation or gender identity, can achieve success. And we will continue to voice our opinion from the top of our soapbox on the subject of legacy admission as often as we can, as loudly as we can all in the hope of bringing about an end to this practice that runs counter to our American values. But we are not in an echo chamber. There are other folks who too are calling for an end to this practice and we’d like to share with our readers what they’ve got to say.

Others Voicing Opposition to Legacy Admission

The Dartmouth Editorial Board wrote a piece yesterday in “The Dartmouth” entitled “Verbum Ultimum: Big Green Favoritism” in which they wrote, “The American ideal is a meritocratic one, even if reality often differs from that goal. The U.S. Constitution reflects this: The Nobility Clause bans heredity titles being granted by the government while the Equal Protection Clause guarantees that all citizens must benefit from ‘the equal protection of the laws.’ Those rules directly impact public colleges and universities. Though private institutions such as Dartmouth are largely exempted, they should still try to uphold the ideals they celebrate and benefit from. Legacy admissions go against the best impulses of the American dream. They seek to benefit those who need it the least…Wealth inequality, and the inherent educational benefits that come with it, is already significant enough for most legacy students without the added benefit of legacy favoritism.”

Legacy Admission is a Violation of Law

But while we agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of The Dartmouth Editorial Board’s argument against legacy admission, the Nobility Clause and Equal Protection Clause simply aren’t applicable to ending this practice of favoritism. We fully appreciate that these clauses were written with the notion of an American meritocracy in mind and that is precisely what The Dartmouth Editorial Board is getting at. But as they so said, private institutions are largely exempted from such clauses. And yet there is a clause they’re not exempted from: 26 U.S. Code § 170.

26 U.S. Code § 170 reads as follows: “There shall be allowed as a deduction any charitable contribution (as defined in subsection (c)) payment of which is made within the taxable year. A charitable contribution shall be allowable as a deduction only if verified under regulations prescribed by the Secretary.” One part of this code also states, “(C) no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”

In plain English, our tax law stipulates that folks who make tax-deductible donations aren’t supposed to receive anything in return for these donations. And yet these folks are receiving something in return. Their next generation is receiving preferential treatment in admissions — further imbalancing our American meritocracy. In tax language, the net earnings of donations to colleges ‘inures’ to the benefit of the donor.

So let’s stop hoping that colleges do right. Let’s stop hoping that they end this practice that fosters inequity. These colleges are financially incentivized to continue the process of legacy admission. Hope won’t get us anywhere. They’ve been doing this for a very long time — all highly selective colleges. Let’s stop hoping and let’s act. Let’s act on the basis that these colleges are violating our tax code. Let’s hold them not to the Nobility Clause or the Equal Protection Clause which apply to legacy admission in spirit but not in practice. Let’s hold them to a law that does apply. 26 U.S. Code § 170.

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