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.