The legacy of legacy admissions

One of the much discussed and debated issues in education is admission through affirmative action, a policy which attempts to bring into consideration historical discrimination, often through preferential treatment of minority groups. This is highly controversial in the US, and has been derided as a form of reverse discrimination. Despite the intense storm of controversy around affirmative action, including numerous lawsuits against universities, there is little to no public debate over a more insidiously unequal policy: legacy-based admissions, a preferential admission policy that favors children of alumni, especially those who have donated to the school. In fact, only in the US is legacy-based admissions legal. Even the supposedly elite schools in the UK, such as Cambridge and Oxford, and the haute écoles of France do not have admissions solely based on ancestry, as European law forbids it. What the hell, USA?

The effect of legacy admissions, though arguably less than affirmative action is still significant. According to political scientists Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chun in a study from 2005, legacy status adds the equivalent of 160 points on a 1600 point total SAT scale. While this may seem like a small “tip” in the fashion of minority status or athletic recruitment, the admission rate for legacies is nearly triple that of the average applicant. Additionally, while legacies are often associated with elite schools, the effect is even more pronounced at public institutions. It’s not surprising when the average American has such bitter contempt for American higher education (See American and Higher Education).

The effect of this skewed access to education on society is deleterious: nearly half of CEOs and government officials come from only twelve schools, an old boy’s network of sorts. Despite the fact that legacy-based admissions is often not reported in mainstream news media, the practice of legacy-based admissions is opposed by a large majority of the American public at nearly 75%. Oddly enough, both the left, such as former senator, Ed Kennedy and right, such as late senator Bob Dole, agree on this. Even former president, George W. Bush, despite being a legacy admit himself, vocally opposed legacy admissions.

Despite the popular opinion and possible political support, what legal arguments are there against legacy admissions? One argument from Steve Shadowen and Suzi Tulante argues that legacy admissions violate the Civil Rights Act of 1886. Another argument from legal scholar, Carlton Larson, argues that legacy admissions violate the “Title of Nobility” clause (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8) of the American constitution.

However, is it really in question whether or not inherited privilege is against the American ideal of meritocratic egalitarianism and republicanism? As Benjamin Franklin said“A man who makes boast of his ancestors doth but advertise his own insignificance.”


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