The Right Coast

January 21, 2004
Frank Snyder responds on Legacy Preferences
By Gail Heriot

Frank Snyder, Associate Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University, sent me an e-mail responding to my post on Monday on legacy preferences. Here's a slightly edited version of his argument:

"There may be a moral problem with legacy admissions, but the financial issue is more complicated than [Gail] suggests. It's not a question of taxpayers supporting the children of favored alumni. Taxpayers pay only a portion of the cost of state university education; a good deal of the rest is made up of contributions from alumni. Legacy programs exist because they enhance alumni giving. The parents whose children are admitted to the school are the ones who disproportionately fund the stuff the legislature won't pay for. In a sense, schools auction off some of their seats to the children of rich alumni, to help underwrite the education of all the students.

"Let's say that a hypothetical school (perhaps like the University of San Diego) has a rich alumnus who's willing to give a lot of money to build a big new science center, but who's really interested seeing his 18-year-old son attend the school. Would it be "corrupt" for the school to admit the donor’s son even though he's just a little bit below the ordinary admissions criteria, and therefore secure the money that will go to benefit all alumni? Is it "fair" to the other students? If the son later decides to go out for the football team, and dad agrees to build a big new athletic training facility, is it corrupt if the school puts the son on the team?

"True, a school like USD is a private institution, and bringing the state in raises a somewhat different issue. It's perfectly possible to argue that when the state is involved, the rich shouldn't be able to buy things the poor can't-whether it's a place on the Olympic team, a seat in a state university, a cellular frequency, lunch with a Senator, a ticket on the Space Shuttle, timber from public lands, or a sky box in a public stadium. But that's not because taxpayers are providing a subsidy, but because it (i) offends our notions of fairness and (ii) creates a risk of corruption of government officials. The official corruption argument here seems weak; of all the things rich people can bribe officials to get, seats in state universities probably figure well down the list. As for fairness, that's complex. After all, why is it fair that dumb students (who pay full price) subsidize the smart students (who get academic scholarships)? The smart students, after all, are going to be more successful than the dumb students and in a "fair" world they should pay more, not less. If the answer is that smart students make the institution stronger and more attractive, and thereby benefit all students, the same is true of students with rich parents.

"As for the suggestion that administrators like legacy programs merely because they make dealing with alumni easier, I can't (as somebody who sits on an admissions committee) see why it is harder to tell an alumnus, "Sorry, we do not have a legacy admissions policy," than it is to say, "We have a legacy admissions process, but your kid was too dumb and you're not prominent enough even to qualify for that lower standard." The ubiquity of legacy programs at state and private institutions all over the country suggests that there is a powerful economic reason for them, not merely that they are relics of the past that happen to suit the convenience of administrators. I suspect that disposing of them at state institutions will only increase the comparative advantage of private institutions in attracting the wealthy donors of the world."

Some of what Frank has said, I agree with. I will try to respond soon. Thanks for writing, Frank.