The Right Coast

January 26, 2004
More on Legacy Policies in College Admissions
By Gail Heriot

Gentle readers may recall my posting on January 19th arguing against preferences in college admissions for the children of alumni and Frank Snyder's response, which I posted on January 22, defending these legacy preferences on the ground that they are helpful in raising funds. Here's my response to Frank's useful and interesting comments:

(1) Even if I were to agree that state universities ought to be able to give preferences to the offspring of wealthy donors for the good of the school as a whole, that's not what legacy preferences do. Few alumni are wealthy donors and most wealthy donors are not alumni. The legacy system runs on the bureaucratic award of a small leg up to the children, grandchildren and siblings of all alumni, regardless of their willingness to provide support for the school financial or otherwise. If anything, one would expect knowledge of such a program might discourage giving, since it renders actual support of the school unnecessary. Why make a handsome gift if the preference is automatic?

I have asked university officials at several schools whether they have any support for the notion that legacy preferences increase alumni giving, None has over been able to give me any. Of course, Frank may be right that alumni whose children also have attended their alma mater are more likely to give than those whose children have not attended the school. But even if they do, the line of causation would be difficult to trace. Are alumni more generous because their children have attended the school? Or did the child wish to attend the school because he was brought up in a household in which his parents spoke favorably of it (and hence were inclined to be generous with it)? Even if it could be established that having a child attend one's alma mater increases alumni generosity, that doesn't mean that having a child who is admitted to the school on a preference will increase alumni generosity. A student whose academic credentials place him below the ordinary cut-off for admission will often find himself at or near the bottom of the class. This may dampen the alumnus parent's enthusiasm for his alma mater rather than enhance it.

Under the circumstances, I have opposed such preferences. I think they will likely be seen by those not eligible for them as an unattractive effort to ensure that the haves of this world continue to be favored over the have nots. One can argue that they don't do much harm, since the preferences are too small to make much difference in actual cases. And that's true. But they send a poor message, and like all special pleading, they encourage further special pleading.

As an aside, I would be interested in learning the history of regularized legacy preferences. At what point in the history of American higher education did the Harvards and Yales of the world decide that the offspring of their graduates should get a regularized special break? (((I used to regard the practice as somewhat in tension with the much-vaunted Harvard/Yale practice of discriminating against their own undergraduates for admission to their graduate and professional schools. I have since been told that this latter practice is more public relations than actual policy; in practice it is said that the level of discrimination is somewhere between zero and vanishingly small. Its purpose is to give those schools a ready-made answer to the question, "If your undergraduate program is so good, why don't its graduates dominate your graduate programs to a greater degree?" I cannot, however, vouch for the accuracy of that information. But I digress ....))) I wonder if legacy policies didn?t get started back in the days of what Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell indelicately called the "Hebrew problem." Jewish students applying to Ivy League schools in the 1920s often had such good credentials that they were said to be "crowding out" the WASPish scions of wealth and privilege who had previously dominated the ivy halls. If so, I think that purpose long ago disappeared from the minds of those who run the institutions that currently such a legacy policy; whatever can be said about legacy programs, they are not intended and do not function to disadvantage Jews. But such a history could explain why the practice so ill fits its avowed purpose of fostering school spirit and enhancing alumni generosity and indicate why the preference as practiced is so minor today. Nobody really has his heart in it anymore, except maybe a few bureaucrats in the admissions office who have convinced themselves that their school really will reap millions on account of the policy. In general, legacy programs are a relic.

(2) Should public universities give preferences to the children of alumni if it can be shown that such a policy does on average enhance alumni generosity somewhat? Even then, I don't think so. (((I'm going to limit my remarks to public universities since my original remarks were so limited. I generally prefer to let private institutions go to heaven or hell in a handbasket of their own making and will acknowledge that Frank's argument is stronger when it is applied to them, although not necessarily strong enough.))

As Frank seems to acknowledge, there are certain things that the State shouldn't sell to the highest bidder even when, as I am assuming arguendo here, the highest bidder's check is not going to bounce. For example, few would dream of determining who attends public universities solely on the basis of auction. The whole purpose of publicly-subsidized higher education is to provide an education for those who otherwise might not be able to afford it. Selling off seats to the highest bidder destroys the argument for having such an institution.

In my view, even a more limited auction--one that sells only some seats and only to a certain class of persons--is also a mistake. In my earlier epistle, I argued that some of the problems with legacy policies can be exposed by attempting to extend the argument to other government functions: Just as the children of California taxpayers should be taxed at the same rate as everyone else even if it can be shown that families that remain in the state for more than one generation do more for the state (including making gifts to a state university) than those that don't, children of alumni should be treated the same for the purposes of state university admissions. It's unseemly to favor a group that is generally regarded as politically well-placed even if one can come up with a supposed benefit that doesn't flunk the laugh test on empirical plausibility. And I suspect most people would indeed regard it as unseemly. There's a reason university catalogues seldom mention legacy preferences and when they do, they do so only in vague incomprehensible terms: They recognize that such practices cannot stand the light of day.

I disagree that university admissions policies do not present a serious risk of corruption to government officials. Maybe they shouldn't, but voters care a lot about who gets in and who doesn't get in to state universities. Since voters, care, politicians (including that very special breed of politician, the public university official) care; they understand that seats in the university class have become an important source of pork and they want to be able to deliver as much of it as possible to their constituents. Each state has a choice: It can adopt a standard for admission--like "We seek the students whose high school record predicts the best possible academic performance"-- and hew as close to that line as possible in developing the details of its admissions policy. Alternatively, it can employ more complicated definitions of what constitutes the most desirable students. If it does, however, it can rely upon the fact that it will get a free-for-all driven by whoever has the most political clout for all manner of special consideration--legacy preferences, geographical preferences, donor preferences, preferences for the children of faculty and staff, racial preferences, ethnic preferences, athlete preferences, preferences for political activists, a new expanded round of racial preferences, and a new expanded round of ethnic preferences. It's hard enough to resist all this special pleading when you aren't carrying out a policy that on its face appears likely to benefit those who already have had advantages in life for purely speculative gain. When you are carrying out such a policy, it becomes about impossible to resist other policies.

(3) Frank can legitimately complain that I have resisted answering the question in its starkest form, which can be put this way: What should the president of a struggling college do when the world's richest man offers her a $500 million if only she will admit his son, who missed the SAT cut-off point at the school by only one point? The school will go bankrupt without the money. Frank would be right; I haven't answered it. On the whole, however, I think she is likely to be judged less harshly than the woman in the story that is sometimes attributed to Churchill and sometimes to Shaw:

---Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?

---Well, yes, Mr. Churchill, I probably would.

---How about for one pound?

---What do you think I am Mr. Churchill, a common whore?

---We've established that, Madam; now we're simply haggling over price.