This post of Emily’s strikes as wrong in a number of ways. Let me go paragraph by paragraph:
[Kevin] Carey states as fact that “the existing class includes underqualified children of legacies, rich people, politicians, celebrities, and others who benefit from the questionable Ivy League admissions process.” I know, I know, there’s been bestseller after bestseller that has attempted to demonstrate the extent to which Ivy League admissions are unfair to the earnest but non-connected student who just can’t get into Harvard because s/he doesn’t know people in power. I’m sorry, but that’s just not the case. You have to meet a basic standard of academic competence to be admitted to Harvard. Or Princeton. Or any of their peer institutions. I know, I know, George W. Bush, but since about the late ’80s family connections have begun to be far less of a point on which college admissions turn.
This doesn’t respond to Carey’s point. He’s not saying that there isn’t a base standard for admission. Everyone knows there is. The problem is that most applicants meet that standard. A vast majority, in fact. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s longtime admissions dean, pegs the number at 80-90 percent of applicants. So the legacies admitted are going to fall under that group. The question then is, of those qualified people, whether legacies get an unfair advantage in becoming among the ten percent of applicants admitted. The answer there is an unqualified yes. The acceptance rate for legacies in the class of 2011 was about 34-35 percent, far higher than the 9 percent overall acceptance rate that year. That these students–of whom, in the interest of full disclosure, I am one–get an big leg-up on the basis of something they can’t control is pretty indisputable.
[A]lumni children are not de facto less qualified than other admits. In fact, if anything, they are likely to be a very academically well-qualified constituency: their parents received a very high-quality education. They probably went on to become middle-class, if they weren’t already. The children were probably raised with encouragement to academic pursuits. They probably had a certain number of environmental advantages.
Two things here. First, Emily’s arguing against a straw man. No one is saying that equivalently qualified legacies should be at a disadvantage to non-legacies. What Carey, myself, and others want is an equal playing field, as opposed to the current system that explicitly privileges equivalently qualified legacies above non-legacies. Are alumni children not less qualified? Great, then let’s prove it. If they can still get in without an extra boost, they’ll have proven to be as qualified as their non-legacy peers. If not, then not. But let’s base it on merit–or what passes for “merit” in the Ivy League admissions process–and not on some other factor that may or may not be correlated.
Secondly, I find Emily’s suggestion that legacies should be entitled to get in on the basis of their families’ superior education, their academically nourishing childhood, environmental advantages, etc. to be profoundly disturbing. Sure, this might make students more academically engaged, but it’s also a factor wholly beyond their control. A student who becomes smart through these factors didn’t “earn” anything. They just slipped into success on the basis of exogenous factors. That they should thus be privileged over, say, someone with working class parents who never went to college seems totally perverse to me.
You probably know that I’m the child of a Princeton alum. And I find the insinuation that I am less entitled to be here because my mother spent 10 years on this campus pretty insulting, frankly. I wouldn’t have lasted very long here if I couldn’t engage with my professors and my peers on a higher level, and I worked very hard both throughout high school and in the admissions process to get here. I find it very hard to believe that all this places me at some greater advantage, or suggests I’m less qualified to be here, than the kid whose parents also both have graduate degrees, but got them from different universities than mine did.
This, frankly, is what bothers me the most about Emily’s post. It’s not just that she repeats the straw man that anyone thinks legacies are “less” deserving of being admitted than non-legacies, rather than engaging with the real belief many hold that legacies should be placed on an equal footing. It’s not even that Emily, in contradiction to the explicit admissions policy of Princeton and every other Ivy, finds it “very hard to believe” that she’s at a greater advantage due to her status as a legacy. It’s that her comparison isn’t to the vast majority of high school students whose parents didn’t finish college, let alone go to graduate school, it’s to someone whose parents got graduate degrees at another school. The total lack of acknowledgment that the graduate education of Emily’s–and my–parents places us at a huge advantage in all our educational pursuits due to no virtues of our own is jarring, to say the least. It’s not normal to have parents who went to grad school. It’s not normal, and we didn’t earn it. We should at the very least be cognizant of that fact, and not take it as a given.