With the recent Supreme Court decision to abolish affirmative action, the entire college admissions process is rightly coming under scrutiny. Now would be a great time to implement fair policies to increase socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges, and ending preferences for legacy admits would be a good start.
A study released July 24 shows how America’s elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality through their highly dubious admissions process, which consistently favors applicants from families of the top 1 percent. This is not the first study to detail how America’s Ivy-Plus institutions systematically tip the scale in favor of the rich, all while claiming to be allies of the impoverished. Attending a prestigious private university like Duke, Harvard, or Dartmouth is greatly correlated with later life success. Specifically, being admitted to any of the 12 ultra-selective, private “Ivy-Plus” institutions (the eight colleges in the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford) as opposed to a flagship public college triples students’ chances of obtaining jobs at preeminent firms, doubles their chances of attending a top graduate school, and substantially increases their chances of earning in the top 1 percent post-graduation. Because highly selective colleges play such an outsized role in alumni’s future success, it is of utmost importance that the admissions policies in place for admitting candidates are themselves fair and based on a system of meritocracy.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead of capturing merit, America’s leading colleges propagate inequity across generations through their admissions practices, which substantially favor “legacy” applicants or children of alumni over “non-legacies” with the same academic credentials.
According to research from Opportunity Insights, legacy status is the largest factor contributing to the over-representation of children from high-income households at Ivy-Plus campuses. The biggest admissions boost goes to high-income legacies, which enjoy admit rates five times that of their non-legacy peers with comparable academic qualifications.
This high-income admissions advantage endures regardless of race. In a paper published in 2019 in the Journal of Labor Economics, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students from the top 1 percent were disproportionately represented in enrollment records at elite universities even after controlling for racial disparities.
Elite colleges’ preferences for the affluent means that on average, 103 extra students from the top 1 percent are over-represented in a typical Ivy-Plus class (of 1,650 students). That is, in every Ivy-Plus class, about 100 students are sitting there for no other reason than because they were born into wealth.
That is absurd. The over-representation of privileged students in the Ivy League is a testament to the profound effect that personal family fortunes play in carving out opportunity.
Righting this wrong requires some degree of government intervention. While private educational institutions are entitled to personal autonomy in their internal affairs (including the college admissions process), that right ceases to exist when those same institutions are funded by tax-payer dollars.
Some of the nation’s largest “private” institutions rely on federal funding to keep their engines rolling. Take Harvard, which in 2018 received the largest federal grant of any university nationwide — a whopping $179 million from the National Institute of Health. That same year, Columbia University received a $165.1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other elite schools like Yale regularly receive millions in federal funding. Since those institutions are at least partly propped up by ordinary tax-payers, isn’t the government entitled to some say in the admissions process? Particularly if that process is skewed in favor of the rich?
While higher education should function as a vehicle for social mobility, the dismal reality is that more often than not, America’s top universities reproduce — even aggravate — social disadvantage. And while the public debate surrounding college admissions has long focused on affirmative action, eliminating legacy preferences (which overwhelmingly benefit white and wealthy applicants) would increase socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges by a magnitude comparable to instituting race-based affirmative action policies.
Instead of doling out preferential treatment for distinct applicant groups, colleges should ensure that the entire admissions process writ large is fair from start to finish. Policies that reward intergenerational privilege have no place in a meritocratic system. It’s time to get rid of preferences for legacy admits.
Nathalie Voit is a Young Voices contributor and an alumni of the University of Florida. Her writing regularly appears on C3 Solutions.
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