Poking Holes in Legacy Admission

Legacy admission is the practice of offering preferential treatment to the progeny of a school’s alumni base (photo credit: David Emmerman).

Hey hey, ho ho, legacy admission has got to go. From atop our soapbox in college admissions, we’ve been calling for an end to the practice of legacy admission for many years. But we are also not naive. Rather, we recognize that legacy admission offers distinct advantages to our nation’s elite universities, including subsidizing the educations of many students who need financial aid. Of students who need financial aid, many will be the first in their immediate families to attend college. Many will be underrepresented minorities. These are coveted groups to America’s elite universities — and for good reason. America’s elite universities, after all, are supposed to be the ticket to our meritocracy. In order to educate these coveted groups, America’s elite universities are reliant on their generous alumni. They are reliant on their alumni giving back. But, of course, these alumni expect something in return for their generosity. As Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, to which we are a member, dubs it: there exists “a secret handshake” between alums and their alma maters.

Writer Pens Column Against Legacy Admission

Liz Willen explores the pitfalls of legacy admission in a recent column published in The Washington Post. As she writes, “Few elite colleges in the midst of choosing their freshman classes like to admit how often they give preference to legacy applicants, a practice that largely benefits higher-income students and by some estimates can double or even quadruple an applicant’s chances of getting in. That’s why I should not have been surprised that most colleges I asked about this wouldn’t talk about it or release their data. They have reasons: Giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni who can most afford to pay clearly benefits colleges, and is not something they want to broadcast when the pandemic is complicating budgets and enrollment predictions.” No, they most certainly do not.

But to Poke Holes in Legacy Admission, One Must First Acknowledge All of Its Benefits

And while Ms. Willen addresses some of the arguments in favor of legacy admission in her column as well, including “build[ing] the kind of loyalty and enduring connections that help colleges over the long run” and “help[ing] fund scholarships,” she fails to address one key argument in its favor. Yes, the legacy pool is overwhelmingly white. But each year that goes by, this pool becomes increasingly diverse. After all, the incoming classes of the nineties and aughts were not the same classes of the seventies and eighties — they became demonstrably more diverse. To eliminate legacy admission now would deal a blow to the children of African American/Black, Latinx/Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American/AAPI alumni whose children are finally coming of age to benefit from a process that as for so long advantaged largely white applicants.

We’ve Proposed a Compromise to Reduce Admissions Slots Earmarked for Legacies

We are, of course, against the practice of legacy admission yet we believe it important to paint the full picture and not exclude any such details — even if such details don’t support its elimination. Because Pollyannish arguments against the practice of legacy admission will only be stronger if they address and poke holes in many or all of the benefits of offering preference to the progeny of alumni. In the end, it’s not black and white. In fact, that’s why we’ve proposed a compromise: our nation’s elite colleges should tag only the children and grandchildren of major donors as legacies. While, yes, this would unfairly advantage the super privileged, it would free up many seats that are currently reserved for the fairly privileged. If 22% of the Early Decision admits of a particularly highly selective universities are legacy, maybe this figure could be reduced to 6% if only the children of major donors are tagged as legacies. After all, it’s the major donors — not the donors who give a very nice $50 a year — who have the power to subsidize the educations of so many low-income students. It’s an imperfect solution for sure. But that’s why we call it a compromise.

Attacks Against Legacy Admission Should Zero in on Tax Law

And, frankly, if one really wants to attack legacy admission, why not lead with the strongest argument against it? It’s a violation of tax law. 26 U.S. Code § 170 to be specific. The law 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 short, alumni make tax-deductible donations to their alma maters. In return for these donations, alumni should not receive anything in return. But, of course, the children of these alumni are receiving preferential treatment in admissions — which directly contradicts the stipulation in our tax code that “no part of the net earnings…insures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”

 
 

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2 Comments

  • Trish Naismith Campbell says:

    Studies have shown whites give the largest donations of any ethnic group- by far. This study was done not just for universities, but for all charitable giving over the course of 20 years. So, if you stop admitting whites, the well flush with alumni cash will run dry, hence less money for low-income minorities. This article assumes the universities’ craving for white donor cash will soon be replaced with a new source of cash from other ethnicities’ pockets. The data does not bear that out. Seems other groups aren’t too generous. And there definitely extremely non-white wealthy alumni from the Ivies. The other factor is universities can not predict if the donor’s son they rejected today, might have given them $10 million in 30 years had they accepted him. Tricky!

  • Enologisto says:

    Ivy Coach, how would you define a “major donor” in your proposed solution? And would it be implemented for all alums regardless of ethnicity/identity/geography/religion/sexual orientation, etc.?

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