Admitting Our Legacy

The U.S. Supreme Court last week issued a 6-2 ruling, upholding a Michigan constitutional amendment that prohibits state universities from considering race as part of their admissions process. The ruling in the case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, represents the second time that the Court has ruled on affirmative action in college admissions in the past year, the prior being its ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas last June. The frequency with which the Court has considered such cases suggests that it is eager to discuss the issue of preferential treatment in college admissions, that is, so long as it just concerns race. In terms of other forms of special treatment, in particular the preferential treatment given to the children of alumni, the Court has been reticent.

This should come as no surprise for a Court, which earlier this month removed the aggregate limit on the total amount a donor may contribute to all candidates, parties and committees. If the Court has no qualms about how elections campaigns are financed, no one should expect it to be interested in how colleges go about their fundraising, and the issue of legacy admissions is after all an issue of college finances. One would be hard pressed to find a compelling reason for legacy admissions aside from its potential help in soliciting alumni donations. While the Court, since Grutter v. Bollinger, has justified the use of race in college admissions with the educational benefits that diversity provides, it is not clear what, if any, educational benefits are offered by legacy admissions. Some might argue that legacy admissions are important in preserving traditions or reinforcing intergenerational bonds — such as Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, who wrote in defense of legacy admissions in The New York Times, that “…careful accommodation of a limited number of youngsters whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have helped to lay the foundation on which the institution stands shows a respect for tradition and honors those without whom the contemporary university might not even exist.” I, however, seriously doubt that this careful accommodation of applicants with “excellent pedigrees” helps preserve any traditions that are at all worth keeping.

While the Court’s reticence on the issue is to be expected, it is, however, strange and unfortunate that the public and colleges themselves are similarly reticent. The amendment under fire in Schuette was a ballot initiative that was approved by direct vote of the people of Michigan. A similar amendment to the California state constitution, Proposition 209, was also a ballot proposition approved by direct vote. Despite popular opposition in some states to affirmative action in college admissions, no commensurate public outcry over legacy admissions has ever materialized. Even at a place as politically active as Amherst, administrators and students rarely make legacy admissions a point of contention, but we should take time to critically evaluate how the policy privileges us as individuals, defines us as a college and burdens society at large.

As prospective graduates of Amherst, we have obvious reasons to support legacy admissions. In the future when we are alumni of the College, if our children apply to Amherst, they will have an advantage in the admissions process, and this advantage can be substantial. Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung of Princeton University found in a 2005 study that “preference for legacy candidates is worth 160 points” (on a 1600-point scale). In a more recent 2011 study, Michael Hurwitz, a researcher at Harvard University, found an even greater impact: legacy candidates of all kinds received a 23.3 percentage point increase in admissions probability, and “primary legacy” candidates (sons and daughters) see a 45.1 percentage point increase.

Given the inexorable rise in tuition rates and educational costs, many view a sizable endowment as essential to maintaining a high level of academics and financial aid and see legacy admissions as an indispensable tool in supporting the fiscal vitality of a college. While these assumptions may be valid to a partial extent, they ought to be examined more critically. While a college’s endowment is important, once a college is able to afford certain core expenses, such as attracting a top faculty and providing generous financial aid, there is a point of diminishing returns, after which a larger endowment does not translate into a superior educational experience. The assumption that legacy admissions increase alumni donations is also problematic because it implies that alumni donations are made contingent upon the acceptance of their children. While it may be naïve to assume that all alumni donate to Amherst simply because of how much they love their alma mater, it is excessively cynical to assume that most alumni would withhold a donation they had originally intended to make if their child were rejected by the college. Colleges take for granted that legacy admissions are a necessary tool for fundraising, but empirical research suggests otherwise. According to a study by Winnemac Consulting, “after inclusion of appropriate controls, including wealth, there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities.”

The only tenable benefits for supporting legacy admissions are increased alumni donations, but even that is tenuous. The costs of legacy admissions are less tangible, more insidious but far greater. Legacy admissions should not be a question of finances, but rather one of values. We should not be asking whether legacy admissions are necessary to support the financial vitality of the College — and I argue they are not — but rather are they consistent with our values, as a nation and as an institution.

Race-based preferences in college admissions have been scrutinized by the U.S. Supreme Court because of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It seems that legacy admissions should face similar, if not greater scrutiny, but based on judicial precedent, the Court only applies the highest level of scrutiny to cases in which a government action discriminates based on a “suspect classification,” such as race or religion. Legacy vs. non-legacy is obviously not a suspect classification and the practice does not violate the Equal Protection Clause; nonetheless, it certainly does seem to contradict the spirit.

Carlton Larson of the Univ. of California, Davis School of Law argues that legacy admissions are indeed unconstitutional, not because of the Equal Protection Clause, but rather because of the Constitution’s prohibition on titles of nobility. The Title of Nobility clause did not only intend to avoid tacky European titles, such as “earl” or “marquis,” but more substantively — as Larson argues by examining evidence from the late eighteenth century — it was designed to prohibit all hereditary privileges with respect to state institutions. Legacy preferences are a substantial privilege (as demonstrated by Hurwitz’s and Espenshade’s research) inherited based on one’s lineage (as emphasized by Trachtenberg) and granted by institutions that receive significant federal funding, and Larson concludes that they are blatantly inconsistent with the Constitution’s prohibition on hereditary privilege.

I bring this up not so that people may sue colleges that practice legacy preferences as they have against colleges with race-based preferences. I doubt the U.S. Supreme Court would place any such case on its docket, and even if it did, I doubt that it would base its ruling on an obscure clause of the Constitution that probably has not been cited by the Court for at least century. Nonetheless, by articulating in writing certain American principles, the Constitution can serve as a powerful didactic tool. The issue of legacy admissions, however, is not for the Court, but rather for colleges themselves, to decide.

To this end, we should recognize that college admissions are not a zero-sum game. There are certainly a limited number of spots at selective colleges, but attending a selective college offers different benefits to different people. Graduates of selective colleges tend to have higher earnings, but this comparison is problematic because selective colleges admit stronger high school applicants to begin with. To correct for this selection bias, Alan Krueger of Princeton University and Stacey Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation matched students into different cohorts based on which colleges they were admitted and rejected and found that earnings were unrelated to the selectivity of the college that students attended within the same cohort. The one caveat was that students from lower-income families did clearly benefit from attending a highly selective college. The children of alumni, however, are least likely to come from lower-income families and in terms of future earnings lose little to nothing from having to attend a less selective college. Therefore, in terms of social welfare, providing them with preferential treatment in admissions is not Pareto efficient.

As income inequality in the U.S. has increased tremendously in the past 30 years, social mobility has stagnated. While colleges are widely regarded to play an important role in promoting social equality and mobility, they have not delivered on that promise. Despite efforts of colleges’ to increase financial aid and attract lower and middle-income students, according to the College Board, two-thirds of students at the nation’s 193 most selective colleges come from the top income quartile, and just 6 percent from the bottom quartile. It is hypocritical how elite private colleges, who are most outspoken in their demands for social justice, are most willing to ignore the social context in which they operate when pursuing their own interests. Amherst College has excelled in its providing full-need financial aid, but if the college is earnest in its efforts to admit more lower and middle-income students, then it should seriously reconsider legacy admissions and whether the two policies are consistent in principle and practice.

When we graduate and become alumni of the college, our children will benefit from legacy preferences, but we will also be responsible for its costs. As Amherst retains and strengthens its commitment in the admissions process to addressing broader social inequities, perhaps one day it will join the ranks of MIT, Caltech, Oxford and Cambridge, who all demonstrate that legacy admissions are completely unnecessary in building a world-class academic institution. Otherwise, we will be complicit in a system of hereditary privilege that runs contrary to the nation’s and the college’s values; and that will be our legacy whether we would like to admit or not.