In a recent
essay in Minding the Campus, blogger John S. Rosenberg argued that I was
too tough on legacy preferences and not tough enough on affirmative action in
college admissions. In my support for
class-based affirmative action, he says, I’m not sufficiently outraged about
racial preferences. And in arguing that
legacy preferences are illegal not only in public but also in private
universities, he says, I make an “odd” set of arguments that “add up to less
On the issue of racial preferences, I am, as Rosenberg suggests,
somewhat ambivalent, as are many Americans.
Polls suggest that Americans want universities that produce our
country’s leadership class to be racially and ethnically diverse yet they don’t
like using race in admissions. I agree
with both sets of views and one of the reasons I have been attracted to writing
about the issue over the years is that I see compelling arguments on both
On the one hand, I am deeply troubled by the casual way in
which many of my fellow liberals embrace the use of race in deciding who gets
ahead in education and employment, ignoring the deep moral problems associated
with judging people by skin color. On
the other hand, I think it is clear that our nation’s horrendous history of
slavery and Jim Crow segregation has left a legacy that helps explain why
African Americans are today disproportionately poor and less educated – a
situation that demands affirmative steps to counteract. Ultimately, I back class-based rather than
race-based preferences because I think they can indirectly address our history
without resorting to the disease as cure.
I also support considering the socioeconomic obstacles overcome as an
element of merit, because today those impediments are seven times as significant
as racial barriers to doing well on the SAT.
Continue reading The Days of Legacy Admissions May Be Numbered
Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation is well known for his relentless, articulate, well-researched arguments that affirmative action should be based on class, not race. My reaction to these arguments is usually rather tepid. I find Kahlenberg’s arguments compelling only insofar as he also criticizes race-based preferences, and his criticism of them usually doesn’t go very far. His objection to distributing burdens and benefits based on race is typically understated, if stated at all, limited to criticizing race preferences because they help some who don’t need it (well off minorities) and don’t help many who do (poor whites and Asians). If he’s ever argued that helping some individuals and hurting others because of their race is wrong, that courts should strike down race-based preferences as violations of both the Constitution and civil rights laws, I don’t recall it.
Continue reading Are Legacy Preferences Illegal?
Legacy preferences have come under increased scrutiny of late, as well they should. Most elite colleges and universities, including all the Ivies, grant legacy preferences, just as they all grant special consideration — and lowered admission standards — for recruited athletes, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. They also give huge boosts to the sons and daughters of wealthy donors and potential donors. Yes, it’s true — to some extent you can buy your way into an elite university if your parents are very wealthy. The sons and daughters of celebrities and powerful politicians, along with the offspring of professors and administrators, also come in for special treatment in admissions.
Objections to legacies gained ground with the publication and vigorous promotion of Richard Kahlenberg’s Affirmative Action for the Rich—a collection of essays by knowledgeable lawyers, scholars, and journalists, all of whom are critical of the widespread practice of granting college admissions preferences to the children of alumni and wealthy donors.
Before publication of this book, Kahlenberg, a former law school professor and graduate of both Harvard Law School and Harvard College (at the college he may have received legacy consideration himself as the son of a Harvard College alumnus) was best known for his earlier work, The Remedy, defending “class-based” rather than “race-based” preferences in education and entry-level employment.
Continue reading A Reluctant Vote for Legacies
Just how much are “legacies” – students with family ties to graduates – granted an edge in admissions to the most elite institutions in the United States?
Until recently, the answer to this question, based on relatively simple analyses of acceptance rates of legacies and non-legacies, had been fairly settled. Legacies, according to the best evidence, have been treated surprisingly well in the cutthroat admissions game, in which the best and brightest are competing for increasingly scarce and valuable terrain in the American meritocracy.
In a sense, the American meritocracy has functioned as it should, producing an increasingly rich vein of highly qualified students, including both legacies and non-legacies alike. Among legacies, families hope to maintain and reproduce family privilege for the next generation and beyond. Among non-legacies, the goal is even loftier: to vault a child into a fundamentally improved social and economic class, which could vastly alter the child’s future opportunities and the economic future of a family’s future generations.
Continue reading Do Rich, White Protestants Have a Big Edge in Admissions?
In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?
Continue reading The Attack on Legacies