A Strange Legacy


Admissions offices at almost all selective private colleges and universities in the U.S. give special consideration to the children of alumni. On the face of it, this seems odious. It amounts to affirmative action for the (mostly white) elite, though technically speaking that’s an oxymoron: Affirmative action was designed to give a leg up to the disadvantaged, whereas alumni preferences simply reward applicants for being privileged. As Nicholas Lemann, New Yorker staff writer and author of The Big Test, a book on the SATs, puts it, at least “affirmative action you can justify in terms of social justice.” Legacies are another matter.

Almost everyone admits that alumni preferences exist, but few will be specific about why, or how big an advantage they confer. John Hanson, director of admissions at Middlebury College, speaks vaguely: “We feel that we are a community, and the fabric of that community is strengthened by the threads that run through it. Some of those threads are family ties. Would we ever admit someone who was not qualified to do our work here just because they had ancestors who had gone to Middlebury? Of course not. That would not be an ethical thing to do. We look at dozens of variables, only one of which would be legacy status.”

Another admissions director at a highly selective college in the Northeast (who asked not to be named) is more direct: “The general rule is that at many of the most selective private colleges the rate of admission for legacies is up to twice that of the general pool.” And why? Because “a very high percentage of the operating budget comes from annual giving.” Translation: Private colleges that stopped admitting legacies would also stop getting fat checks from their alums.

“Yale,” says Lemann, “is the only place that I’m aware of where they toyed publicly—this was in the late ’60s—with eliminating the alumni-child preference. It caused an immediate, measurable drop in contributions, and they openly said, ‘We are now restoring the alumni-child preference.’ ”

But, as that Northeast college admissions director told me, endowments benefit everyone. Without them, he said, “we couldn’t bring financial aid students to campus. It’s a necessary evil. Our tuition is $32,000, but it actually costs the college over $50,000 to educate each kid. So the endowment is subsidizing the education of every student by about $20,000.”

Hence, if we abolished alumni preferences for meritocracy’s sake, private higher education would become so expensive that only the wealthiest could afford it. Still, if you’re opposed to preferences like affirmative action on principle, you can’t, in good conscience, countenance alumni preferences just because they fund the system. It’s got to be neither or both.

University of California regent Ward Connerly is one of the few opponents of affirmative action who concedes this: “I’m opposed to alumni preferences. We are going to a merit-based system, and one cannot find any merit in the fact that your father or your grandfather happened to be an alum.”

But pro-affirmative-action pragmatists like Lemann say: “The more time you spend with the word meritocracy, the less comfortable you get with using it unironically. The colleges aren’t really being hypocritical because the policies are quite uniform. Virtually all colleges practice affirmative action and the alumni preference, and virtually no colleges pretend to admit in a blind way.”

True, non-merit-based preferences of many stripes (athletic, geographic, cultural) are commonplace in admissions offices. They promote fiscal health, not to mention diversity, whereas a meritocracy would, it appears, produce homogeneous bankruptcy—a lot of supergeeks all dressed up with nowhere to go. But, as rebounding minority populations in the UC system since the kibosh on affirmative action have shown, meritocracy and diversity need not be mutually exclusive. The same may prove true of meritocracy and solvency.

Robert Klitgaard—who’s dean of the RAND Graduate School and author of Choosing Elites, a 1985 study of college admissions that’s still widely cited—wryly suggests a solution that he proposed years ago in his book: “Let’s suppose we save a hundred seats in every class and open them to the highest bidder. All other applicants would be admitted on merit alone. We’ll use the money we raise for scholarships for the neediest.” It couldn’t hurt, and at least it’s honest.