Column: Affirmative action for the well-connected

An ivory tower. (Credit: Creative Commons)
An actual ivory tower, courtesy of Creative Commons.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines of the brochure I received earlier this year from my college alma mater.

“Admissions 101: College Exploration Program for Trinity Families” read the headline on the brochure. Inside, I learned that the two-day program on the college’s campus in Hartford, Conn., was reserved for high school-aged children and grandchildren of Trinity alumni, parents, faculty and staff.

Talk about special treatment!

The high school juniors who attended would learn how “you can best prepare for the application process and highlight your uniqueness” and could have an interview with an admissions representative, which would be “considered as your offi cial Trinity interview.”

Trinity, a 191-year-old liberal arts college with an undergraduate enrollment of just over 2,000 students, is hardly alone in giving preferential treatment to applicants with so-called “legacy status.” Legacy preferences are used at nearly three-quarters of selective research universities and virtually all elite liberal arts colleges, according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied the subject extensively.

It’s a topic that warrants much greater scrutiny, particularly after the Supreme Court’s decision this spring upholding a Michigan constitutional amendment banning the use of race-based affi rmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her full-throated dissent to the decision, “A white graduate of a public Michigan university who wishes to pass his historical privilege on to his children may freely lobby the board of that university in favor of an expanded legacy admissions policy.”

But, added Justice Sotomayor, “A black Michigander who was denied the opportunity to attend that very university cannot lobby the board in favor of a policy that might give his children a chance that he never had.”

Curiously, while many Americans oppose the use of racial preferences in college admissions, they’ve been slow to question the use of legacy preferences.

In “The Legacy Racket,” a 2010 article called published by the Century Foundation, Mr. Kahlenberg observed that “surprisingly little has been said or written or done to challenge a larger, longstanding ‘affi rmative action’ program that tends to benefi t wealthy whites …

“Like racial preferences,” he continued, “preferences for legacies can be criticized for being based on ancestry rather than individual merit, yet they offer none of the countervailing benefits of affi rmative action, such as remedying past discrimination or promoting educational diversity.”

Let it be noted that Mr. Kahlenberg was pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling and thinks colleges should achieve diversity through means other than racial preferences, such as taking family income into account or, in the case of public universities, admitting the top-ranking students from every high school in a state.

But to further increase diversity he also favors abolishing legacy preferences, which he says are a uniquely American institution dating to the early 20th century, when colleges and universities, both public and private, were seeking ways to limit admissions of immigrants and Jews. Preferences are now used with the aim of increasing donations from alumni.

Research indicates that legacy status can add the equivalent of 160 points to SAT scores for applicants to elite colleges, according to Mr. Kahlenberg. He cites a study led by William Bowen, a former president of Princeton, which found that, within a given score range, being a legacy increased one’s chances of admission to a selective institution by almost 20 percentage points.

“That is to say,” wrote Mr. Kahlenberg, “a given student whose academic record gave her a 40 percent chance of admissions would have nearly a 60 percent chance if she were a legacy.”

Contrary to the widespread perception that the United States offers more opportunity for upward mobility than any other nation, America lags behind some other developed nations — Canada, Germany, Norway, Finland and Denmark, for example — when it comes to facilitating climbing the socio-economic ladder.

In our country, legacy preferences at colleges and universities make the climb just that much harder for the disadvantaged. If racial preferences should go, so should affirmative action for the well-connected.

John Henry is a journalist and author who is a former writer and copy editor for Times/Review Newsgroup. He lives in Orient.Henry, John BE 03/13/03 TRhead