Asking for accountability in “legacy” admissions

It’s definitely constitutional for a university, even a public one, to give admissions preference to the children and relatives of its alumni — “legacies” in the vernacular.  But does it work?  Critics call the preferences a school gives to the children of its alumni “affirmative action for the rich.”  Defenders claim that the practice is both legitimate and useful because it forges a stronger connection between the alumni and the school and encourages alumni giving.  The latter argument seems to make sense, until you consider the fact that very few people allude to actual figures when they make this argument.

How much does legacy preference actually increase in alumni giving?  Earlier this year, an article published in the Santa Clara Law Review argues that, aside from suffering from various constitutional and statutory problems, giving preferences to legacies simply does not work in the way its defenders say it does: the policy makes no discernible difference in the level of alumni giving in the sample of “100 elite universities” studied.  Granted, the sample size seems rather small, but I would love to see some data from the other side of the debate.

Three Princeton researchers have found in a study from 2004 that being a legacy at one of the three elite universities is roughly equivalent to a boost of 160 points in a 1600-point SAT exam for the applicant to those universities.  This is quite an advantage, hence the outcry of unfairness.  But it does not necessarily mean that the net effect of the policy is negative.  The question is, point for dollar, what do the universities get in return?

The case for disclosing and studying such data is especially strong for tax-supported public universities (though even private universities are supported by federal funding and should be required some degree of accountability).  As taxpayers, the public should demand accountability for this policy.  Only with more information can we sensibly debate whether the policy of “affirmative action for the rich” is worth it.

And if the data is inconclusive, as it very well might be, then we ought to err on the side of fairness, follow the lead of the University of California system, and jettison this policy with many downsides and no obvious benefits.

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