Do Rich, White Protestants Have a Big Edge in Admissions?

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.

According to published estimates, Princeton admits 41 percent of legacy applicants compared to just 9 percent of non-legacies. Brown’s accepted 35 percent of legacies compared to just a 13 percent acceptance rate for all applicants. In 2003, Harvard admitted 40 percent of legacy applicants, compared to an acceptance rate of 11 percent overall.
But now, according to a startling new analysis, the legacy advantage may be even greater than previously thought. Groundbreaking research typically combines a deep and reliable date set and an innovative methodology. Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has produced this rare combination in a new paper to be published in the journal Economics of Education Review.
As Hurwitz notes, insufficient data has been a main weakness of past research on the legacy advantage. Gross differences in the admission rates between legacies and non-legacies masked apparently subtle differences in one’s legacy status. Hurwitz’s data, based on the admissions behaviors of 30 elite private colleges and universities, including some 307,000 undergraduate applications in the fall of 2007, were indeed comprehensive. His variables included not just legacies but what kind of legacy: “primary” legacy he defined as the children of parents who are alumni of the elite schools. “Secondary” legacies are those with more distant familial ties, including siblings, grandparents, and others. In addition, his data included SAT scores, the degree of selectivity for the 30 institutions, as well as the differences in admit rates between regular applicants and those seeking early admissions.
As it turns out, the seemingly subtle differences in one’s legacy status are not subtle at all. By far, these elite colleges and universities favor primary legacies over other types of students. Hurwitz theorizes that the parents of these primary legacies, as recent alumni, are more likely to give money to schools than are more distantly related alumni.
In fact, as shown in table 1, 43 percent of primary legacies are admitted to these elite schools compared to a 20 percent admit rate for non-legacies. But nearly 58 percent of primary legacies are admitted if they’re also applying as an Early Decision candidate. That compares to a 39 percent admit rate for non-legacies applying Early Decision.
Secondary legacies are not treated nearly so well. While more than 51 percent of secondary legacies are admitted if applying Early Decision, just 28 percent of secondary legacies applying under regular admissions are accepted. That compares to an acceptance rate of more than 40 percent for primary legacies who apply by the regular admissions deadline – i.e. they are not seeking advantages afforded early applicants.
One eye-opening fact in Hurwitz’s analysis is that primary legacies are getting these huge boosts in the chances of admission despite average SAT scores that differ from scores of other types of candidates by no more than about 10 points – a difference that is close to zero considering measurement error and the trivial effects of such small differences in actual academic outcomes.
In other words, they’re getting a really sweet deal, all by virtue of family lineage. Now, wasn’t the United States founded, at least in part, on the notion that inherited titles of nobility should be banished from the uniquely American experiment in representative democracy?
Hurwitz chooses to punt on these thornier questions about the legality of legitimacy of legacy preferences in American society, adopting the universities’ standard defenses for granting legacy preferences. “Although the admissions advantage received by legacy applicants may strike some readers as unacceptably large, I urge readers to consider that donations from alumni are increasingly important to the well-being of this paper’s sampled colleges,” he writes. “Alumni have helped to grow these endowments for generations…through charitable gifts and contributions to annual funds that channel money to financial aid for low-income students.” Hurwitz continues, “These gifts preserve and grow endowments, ensuring academic excellence for future generations of students.”
The prevailing view among elite institutions is that they are entitled to give an admissions boost to legacies for two inter-related reasons. One is a property claim, which holds that, as a private institution, the university has the right to conduct its business affairs as it deems fit, including complete discretion over the composition of its student body, restricted only by federal laws against racial, religious, and gender discrimination.
Indeed, in the era of “enrollment management” and similar highly sophisticated techniques borrowed from the corporate world to identify, recruit, admit, and enroll the most profitable students, admissions has become less about merit and more about the cold rationality of business. In other words, not-for-profit universities see the legacy preference as a potential profit center: in 2006, for example, alumni donors gave colleges and universities $8.4 billion in charitable contributions, which accounted for about 33 percent of the total voluntary support to higher education.
Closely related to the claim of a private property right that universities exercise when deciding on the composition of their student bodies is a First Amendment claim. According to this argument, private universities have a right to create and maintain the college culture, particularly the kinds of students who contribute to this culture.
Private universities especially stand behind these arguments because of the widespread but false view that they are truly private institutions, whitewashing the fact that they are joined by the hip to the federal government and its largesse.
But gifts from the federal government do not stop at just research grants, though the proportion of federal money in the revenues of elite private universities has become sizeable. Perhaps the most important gift the government grants elite universities is the income tax deduction for charitable donations, including donations from alumni parents to non-profit educational institutions. What’s more, not just charitable donations, but all revenues in excess of costs (profits) are exempt from federal taxation.
In terms of the charitable deduction, elite universities argue that alumni donations are vital to the business model of an endowment maximizing (yet non-profit) organization. And yet, they claim that providing an admissions advantage to children of alumni is simply based on the premise of maintaining institutional culture from one generation to the next.
The justification for the exemption of gifts to non-profits in U.S. tax law has always been based on one fundamental principle: fairness to the giver. A person who gives to charity should not have to pay income taxes on the amount that he or she gives away. But The system depends upon a single linchpin in American tax law: that the donation to charity must not enrich the giver.
In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, universities boldly claim that alumni and others make these tax-exempt gifts without any expectation of quid pro quo.
As Hurwitz’s study amply demonstrates, the admissions preferences that elite colleges and universities grant to children of alumni, primary legacies in particular, are far from a mere “tip factor” in decisions about whom to admit. The huge admissions advantages universities grant legacies are integral to their way of doing business, rendering any claim that such gifts in no way enrich the giver laughable.
While American taxpayers are being cheated, elite, not-for-profit universities are laughing all the way to the bank. While ordinary Americans without any inherited titles of educational, political and economic nobility are being left to slug it out for the shrinking numbers of non-privileged opening to elite colleges, the mostly rich, white and Protestant families who benefit from legacy preferences are assured of the continuity of their inherited aristocracy for generations to come.
The legacy story isn’t over by any means. When policymakers fight about affirmative action, the elephant in the room that nobody discusses is legacy preferences. One might even argue that the only reason that elite universities battle to defend racial preferences is that they are doing so to shield legacy preferences from public scrutiny. Affirmative action, for these elite schools, is a political necessity. But legacy preferences are their life and blood. One day soon, probably sooner than later, there will be a battle in the courts, and it will be fierce.

Peter Sacks

Peter Sacks is an author, economist, essayist and social critic.

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