Favoring the advantaged

Did you know that there are special informational interviews with admissions officers available to the children of alumni? It makes sense, because they need it. Their parents are particularly unlikely to have a grasp of how elite institutions work. They probably do not go to a school that employs a college counselor, nor are their parents able to afford one. Their parents are also unlikely to understand the Internet well enough to do any research independently.

All these reasons are also why legacies are flagged for preference in admissions processes across higher education. Legacies are disadvantaged, and they need that extra help.

Hang on, this seems a bit backward.

There are a lot of ways that America fails at being meritocratic. Test-prep culture has turned standardized tests from rough measurements of knowledge and intelligence into rough measurements of parental income. Similarly, the children of educated parents are miles ahead of their peers before they even start kindergarten. Private schools exist. The great policy disgrace of an education system funded locally by property taxes serves no purpose other than to entrench inequality. Even more serious a problem, America remains deeply segregated based on race and class.

Williams cannot actually do much about most of these things on its own. It could stop including the ACT and SAT in its admissions criteria, but I’m not prepared to suggest a substitute, and they do at least sort the privileged.

What we can do, however, is stop the affirmative action for rich, white children more commonly known as legacy admissions.

Unsurprisingly, the College does not advertise an official preference for the children of alumni, but the alumni section of the website raves about the number of alumni children going to the College and states that legacy applicants have access to interviews with admissions officers “to get advice,” provided they “identify themselves” as such. Admissions officers will tell you that legacies are assessed the same way as other candidates, but the fact that legacies make up more than a 10th of the student body suggests that their status at least counts a bit in their favor. That’s not to suggest there are any unqualified legacies let in, just that it might be a marginal deciding factor between equally qualified candidates. Every school like ours gives preference to legacies, and if Williams didn’t, that fact would be publicized.

I know: The argument for legacy admissions in the lede is a strawman. The actual case is mostly financial. As the admissions process is financially need-blind, legacy admits are a convenient loophole to development admits. Development admits, which are made impossible by a need-blind process, are students who are admitted partially because they’re expected to pay full tuition. As the College is happy to tell you, Williams grads tend to be successful later in life, so they are more likely than an average person to be able to pay their child’s full tuition. Even better, the College might create a dynasty of full tuition students, all of whom donate more as alumni because the College is basically part of the family. There’s an abstract argument that legacy admissions promotes a strong alumni culture, but it’s unclear what purpose that serves other than, once again, defending the interests of the privileged.

The financial argument for legacy admissions is strong. The College has to be able to function.

The moral argument against them is stronger: It should be Williams’ mission to be as meritocratic as possible. Ideally, the admissions process would be able to dig through the advantages bestowed upon some students by circumstances of birth and figure out who, in a world of perfect equality of opportunity, would be most able to succeed at Williams. As there are already way more “qualified” applicants than the College can accept, that would mean that most of the time, a lot of wonderful people who are great parts of the College community today would not be accepted. In case this piece seems like an attack on legacy students themselves, in the ideal system, I probably wouldn’t be accepted.

Unfortunately, the admissions process cannot possibly achieve that. There’s no way of concretely testing whatever innate skills makes one successful in academia. The College can, however, cut out one of the tools that actively weighs against those skills. That’s not to say that the legacies who are admitted don’t have them. They do. The problem is that there are a great number of equally qualified people who lack the inherent advantages that someone born into a family of Ephs possesses. A legacy student is more likely than a randomly chosen applicant to be white and affluent, and by definition, a legacy student will have at least one highly educated parent. Giving them affirmative action is counterproductive.

Cutting development admits entirely would not be easy on the College’s finances, especially if none of our peer institutions did the same, but it would be survivable. We survived the hit to the endowment of the recession, and there are places where cuts can be made. To lose a few more friends, here are some examples: sports, astronomy, administration, fancy new construction projects, the Oxford program.

The cuts that could be made aren’t really the point, however. As a society, we’ve long told ourselves that it is okay to lack equality of outcome as long as we have equality of opportunity, and as long as we keep saying that, we need to actually try to achieve the latter. Williams needs to explicitly end any preference for legacy students. To do otherwise is to actively maintain, at an institution theoretically devoted to propelling the best and brightest, the great social ill of unearned, hereditary inequality.

Chris Huffaker ’15 is a math and French double major from Calgary, Alberta. He is studying abroad at Oxford.

Comments (8)

  1. A shockingly ill-informed op-ed, even for the Record.

    1) The reason that admissions meets with legacies is two fold: First, and most importantly, it tells a majority of legacy (potential) applicants that they won’t be accepted, so they should not apply. It is a politeness. Second, for very strong legacies, it tries to recruit them to Williams. The handful of students who choose Williams over Harvard/Yale/Princeton each year? Much more likely to be legacies.

    2) The amount of “preference” for legacy applicants is de minimus. The average SAT score for legacies at Williams is as high as the score for non-legacies, to site just one statistic. Legacies do just as well at Williams as non-legacies in terms of grades, academic honors, non-academic recognition and so on.

    1. “That’s not to suggest there are any unqualified legacies let in, just that it might be a marginal deciding factor between equally qualified candidates.”

  2. You wrote “stop the affirmative action for rich, white children more commonly known as legacy admissions” and “legacies are flagged for preference in admissions processes across higher education.” Every reader interpreted you to mean that legacies are less qualified than non-legacies. That is what “affirmative action” and “preference” mean.

    Williams could blind the admissions office to legacy status and we would, more or less, have the same percentage of legacy students as we do today.

    Beyond this point, the article is filled with other mistakes. For example:

    “Development admits, which are made impossible by a need-blind process, are students who are admitted partially because they’re expected to pay full tuition.”

    That is just false. Development admits are students whose families — whether or not they are Williams graduates — are reasonably expected to write million dollar+ checks. It has nothing to do with their tuition paying abilities. Most public example is Hollander Hall.

  3. “It should be Williams’ mission to be as meritocratic as possible.”

    If you really believe this statement, then there is a great follow up article to be written. First, describe how Williams admissions are not meritocratic. (Hint: 95% of decisions that are not grade/score based are due to race (black/hispanic) or athletic ability.) Second, argue for the changes that you would make. Legacy preferences, to the extent they even exist, are trivial compared to race/athletic preferences. (Development preference are large, but influence only a handful of admissions each year.)

  4. Eph alum,

    This is a particularly repugnant and odious claim that you are making. On the average LEGACY ADMITs will NEVER PERFORM as well as their classmates who were admitted at a school without any kind of preference . Your claims is simply not going to happen. Read the Arcidiacono study at Duke, the author and his colleagues used white legacy admits as a control group to analyze the academic performance of blacks at Duke. They found that white legacy admits performed on the same subpar level as blacks on the average in terms of academic performance.

    White legacy admits like their black racial admit counterparts who majored in economics, science and engineering suffered from a massive attrition rate and shifted to the less demanding humanities and social sciences. Of course the easier humanities and social sciences with their runaway grade inflation enabled to Duke to have a high graduation rate in percentages that is in the 90’s. Of course no private school has the financial incentive to flunk students, it is simply bad PR. What is true at Duke is also true at every Ivy School or a lib arts school like Williams.

    Other studies have found the same thing.. Do you honestly believe that the children of faculty and administrators preferentially admitted are going to perform on the same academic level as their classmates who were admitted without any kind of a preference or Asians for that matter ? Of course not., growing up around books is no guarantee that a professor’s child at Williams admitted preferentially will perform as well as his classmates right ? After all there is such a thing as human genetic variation right ? And you think that on the average that these white legacy admits are going to perform better academically than the children of Williams faculty admitted preferentially at Williams ?

  5. Why astronomy? Or are you so selfish so as to want to cut back on someone else’s dream just because it will have no impact on little old Johnny? Grow up, mr. legacy, I and a horde of others just like me have earned the right to study what we want and we did this all without having mommy and daddy holding our hands and talking to the teachers to give us a gold star.

  6. The Arcidiacono article you referenced was never published. Do you have a published reference?

  7. Pingback: No, You Shouldn’t Donate To Your College | In The 'Cac

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