The Legacy of Legacy Admissions Is Not What the Critics Claim

  • November 17, 2023
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In the aftermath of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and its companion case, race-based affirmative action is, for the most part, dead. While there are legitimate criticisms of this decision from the Right, the Left has taken the near opposite approach.

Rather than simply lamenting, the Left is using this as an opportunity for taking further action against what they perceive to be racial discrimination. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) states in a tweet, “If SCOTUS was serious about their ludicrous ‘colorblindness’ claims, they would have abolished legacy admissions, aka affirmative action for the privileged. 70 percent of Harvard’s legacy applicants are white. SCOTUS didn’t touch that—which would have impacted them and their patrons.”

Beside the fact that by AOC’s own admission white people are actually underrepresented in legacy admissions (75 percent of the US population identifies as white compared to 70 percent of Harvard’s white legacy applicants), legacy admissions are not arbitrarily discriminatory, unlike race-based affirmative action.

This article published by The Hill discusses the growing trend of colleges and universities abandoning the policy of legacy admissions. The article highlights how the elimination of affirmative action brought a new sense of urgency to the movement, citing legacy admissions as a counterbalance to race-based affirmative action.

Progressives are accusing the practice of legacy admissions discriminating in favor of whites. While it may be true that most legacy admissions are white, legacy admissions and racial discrimination are hardly similar. As this article will argue, affirmative action is an arbitrary, antimerit policy, while legacy admissions recognize merit rather than being arbitrarily discriminatory.

Racial discrimination is arbitrary. It is not a good thing that people are denied or accepted admission to a university simply for their race or other arbitrary characteristics. Legacy admissions are wholly different. Although a controversial topic, race alone gives no indication of future success; however, ancestry does. Despite claims that legacy admissions are “anti-merit,” legacy admissions enable college administrators to better select students based on merit rather than other arbitrary characteristics.

Merit is not always acquired but can be inherited as well. While some people work hard to become good students, others are predisposed toward hard work or intelligence. Those who acquire good traits and those who simply inherit them may find success for different reasons, but both are successful on their own terms.

The Son Also Rises, a book by Gregory Clark, makes the persuasive case that success primarily relies on ancestry by looking extensively at successful and unsuccessful extended families from all over the world over the course of centuries. Among the evidence he uses are college and university enrollment records.

In the long run, successful extended families persist to be successful, while those that are unsuccessful remain unsuccessful. Colleges and universities more than likely factor this into their decision-making process. Essentially, legacy admissions are not necessarily arbitrary but an accurate indicator of the later success of each applicant.

Legacy admissions benefit the university’s reputation and give the applicant a good degree; whereas, forcing the university to make decisions based on race forces the university to make decisions based on a variable with no discernible effect on success.

A retort to this might be that legacy admissions prevent the alternative applicant from getting an education to improve their chances of success. As President Joe Biden suggests, legacy admissions “expand privilege instead of opportunity.” However, this fails in understanding the nature of education. Education is for signaling desirable traits, not improving human capital.

The Case against Education, by Bryan Caplan, cites many variables in making the case that education is for signaling personal traits and dispositions, not improving human capital: students forget material over the summer, dropouts have no significant edge over the general population despite having attended some college, students celebrate when a teacher comes in late or calls in sick, students prefer easy As, students are required to take a variety of classes extraneous to their degree, etc. If education were for the betterment of one’s human capital, then the opposite would be expected for each of these findings.

Students attend university to obtain a degree, which signals that they can commit to something, they are above average intelligence, or that they have some other inborn trait or disposition. This helps employers in sorting through job applicants. If the human capital view were true, why wouldn’t people just go to school for classes that only pertain to their interests? Why obtain a degree at all?

Returning to legacy admissions, college admissions offices are selecting applicants they have a high degree of certainty in. The admissions officers are trying to match the degrees with those who will perceivably match or exceed the quality of the degree. Given the insight from Clark’s work, legacy applicants would be perfect. Legacies will probably reflect their parent’s success, therefore maintaining or even improving the quality of the degree.

Critics reply that legacy applicants do worse than the average student. This is a questionable claim. While there are reports that legacy students do worse than students who were given preference according to race, their performance is only being compared relative to the preference they were given as measured by their precollege grade point average (GPA). According to the same study, “Legacy students generally had higher GPAs and lower dropout rates than minority students.”

Even if their GPAs or dropout rates were worse, this would say nothing about the desirability of admitting legacy applicants. As the saying goes, “Cs get degrees,” and as we have established, college isn’t about the grade; students are after the degree. A legacy applicant may be naturally inclined to acquire the degree without expending much effort. They might have lower grades than those who tried hard, but that is immaterial. They still get the degree, and the degree is an accurate representation of their capabilities.

Additionally, even if they had a higher dropout rate, those who remain could make up for those who didn’t persist. Just having one highly successful legacy could be a success for the college even if every other legacy dropped out (which would be unlikely to happen in the first place).

Ultimately, legacy admissions are not arbitrary but have a positive effect on both the applicant and the administration. There will certainly be some who are rejected because a legacy applicant was accepted; however, someone will be rejected regardless. The university is faced with this question: Which applicant will be more beneficial to the university? Legacy applicants have a definite beneficial effect, whereas applicants with no edge other than race have no discernable positive effect relative to the average applicant.

Additionally, in light of the signaling theory of education as presented by Caplan, legacy admissions do not prevent those rejected from acquiring human capital because education is not about human capital.

Legacy admissions are not antimerit but are predicated on recognizing the inborn merit of legacy applicants. Legacy admissions are thus not comparable to affirmative action, which is an antimerit and arbitrary policy.

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