Ivy League Legacies Are Privileged. News at 11.

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.

5 thoughts on “Ivy League Legacies Are Privileged. News at 11.

  1. Dylan,
    I don’t disagree with you. I believe the leg-up that legacies get in admissions policies should be done away with. But what still bothers me is the way Carey phrased his argument. I don’t think we should be thinking in terms of underqualified alumni children, donor children, faculty children, athletes, etc. We should be thinking in terms of getting those questions out of the admissions process. It would have been better if the Princeton application hadn’t asked me whether I have any relatives who went here. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have answered the question, and should have just seen what happened. No one would probably have known the difference. But I did. And maybe I’ll never know whether I would have gotten into this school without the legacy edge, but I do know that Princeton’s legacy edge, when compared to non-legacy middle-class students with college-educated parents, isn’t that big. (I unfortunately can’t cite data–I serve on the Princeton faculty-student admissions committee and the data I have seen in that capacity is confidential. I swear that’s not a cop-out; I just don’t want to get in trouble.)
    I have acknowledged frequently elsewhere that it’s a systemic enormous problem that environmental factors like your socioeconomic class, your parents’ educational background, the kind of high school you went to, the neighborhood you lived in, etc., give you huge advantages in Ivy League and peer institution admissions. I am not at all denying that. I’m comparing my case to those of kids with similar family backgrounds simply to push that I’m not inherently underqualified by virtue of being a legacy, and that it shouldn’t have to be a horrible thing to go to the same school your mom did.
    The conversation about legacy admits seems very personal to me, and it’s very hard for me to get away from that. I’ve had people here on campus and elsewhere who have heard me talk about being the daughter of an alum say to me, “You took a place away from a more deserving, more qualified student.” And all I’m saying is, I don’t think that’s the way these statistical patterns operate, on that kind of personal level, and I don’t think it’s fair to have to feel guilty about going to the same college as your mom, even if it is Princeton. I don’t think its fair to have to feel guilty about going to Princeton. Because I’m middle-class, of educated parents, and therefore uberprivileged in this game, should I have gone to Berkeley instead? Of course not; that’s not how this works. But does that mean there’s nothing wrong with the system? Of course not either. And that’s part of the reason I serve on the admissions committee at school: now that I’m here, I want to do what I can to make this process fairer.
    Thanks again for responding, and I think I’m going to take it as read that in future I shouldn’t use the time when I missed class because I was too sick to form a cogent argument to try to form cogent arguments while blogging instead. 😉

  2. 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.
    Hi Dylan. Since you went public, we might as well go public with the fact that your dad was my roommate at Harvard. I also have children now, so this issue is relevant to me, although it won’t necessarily be Harvard.
    I don’t see college admission as a reward for virtue in the first place. I see it as a service for students, based on what they want and what they are ready for.
    Yes, I assume that our children are better prepared for college because my wife and I are both Harvard-educated. Yes, to the extent that it is true, I don’t want anyone to interpret it as their intrinsic virtue as people. So? They still deserve to be challenged in college.

  3. Greg–that’s absolutely true. I didn’t want to get into the side issue of how intelligence/well-preparedness for college etc. isn’t some kind of virtue deserving of reward, as it’s something of a side issue to this debate, but I absolutely agree. William Deresiewicz speaks the truth:

    One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.

  4. Nonetheless, I think that our children, or anyone’s children, are entitled to admission on the basis of academic achievement. It isn’t just a question of whether they are “qualified”, i.e., meet a base standard. They are more entitled if they are more qualified, if that’s what universities want. And universities are entitled to want more qualified students.
    There are people who think of educating students beyond a base standard as coals to Newcastle. I don’t agree with them.

  5. I think my opinion falls in between yours and Emily’s. The truth of the matter is that legacies don’t get a huge bump in admissions. The fact that their admit rate is so much higher is because as a group they are better qualified, for the reasons that Emily cites. It would be more valuable to look at the Princeton legacies’ admit rate at Harvard. Lets say Harvard and Princeton both have an overall admit rate of 9% (I know that’s not true, but bear with this example). Perhaps Princeton’s legacy admit rate is 30%. Those same kids (children of Princeton alumni/ae) probably get admitted to Harvard at a lower rate, but not by much (say, 25%). Again, these are NOT real data, but all I’m trying to say is that I’m pretty confident that the admit rate for Princeton legacies applying to Harvard is better than the overall admit rate to Harvard. So one should never just compare admit rates when looking at the legacy edge.
    All of that being said, legacies do get a leg up! Sure, those admitted are qualified and do well in their courses. But there are many rejected students who are qualified and would have done well. I’m not talking about the 80-90% who apply and are “qualified” in that they would be able to earn the degree at Harvard. I’m talking about a smaller percentage (maybe 30-40%…again, not real data) who would have an A- average or higher in standard Harvard courses. If legacies appear to fit that profile, they’ll likely be admitted. If another kid does, s/he probably has less than a 50/50 chance, and it will depend on what unique skills/experiences/demographics s/he brings to the table. You may wonder why I think so many rejected students would have an A or A- average, whereas the current students’ average is lower. Much of it has to do with rounding out the class. You don’t want 20 kids from the same location, high school, economic class, race, and skill set. This issue speaks to Greg’s comment — most elite schools care more about diversity (of everything, not just race) than they care about accepting just the top academic achievers. Students will have a more enriching educational experience if their classmates differ from them, and typically striving for diversity means dipping a bit “deeper” in the applicant pool. (I put “deeper” in quotes because I don’t necessarily think that having a unique non-academic skill or experience makes you less suited for college than someone who has typical skills and experiences, but better academic qualifications.)
    I think the problem that people have with legacies is that it feels “wrong” to give a leg up to students who already have an advantage because their parents are well-educated. You’d rather give that edge to someone who has been disadvantaged in life, and has therefore not yet met his/her potential.
    I’m not sure where I stand with legacy admissions. It does seem unfair and misguided from a social justice perspective, but if legacy admissions foster stronger bonds and more alumni dollars which can translate to financial aid for needier students, maybe they’re not all bad.

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