New study turns attacks on legacy admissions on their head

It revealed complications to the stereotype that’s being pushed on the Left.

Since the US Supreme Court overturned Affirmative Action, a decades-long policy that allowed both public and private universities to discriminate in their admissions processes on the basis of race, many on the Left have turned their attention to another practice they say is unfair: legacy admissions.

Last week, the Biden Education Department actually launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard University’s policies on legacy admissions—which often finds prestigious universities weighting applications from the children of alumni and allowing them to bypass more impressive would-be students.

Opponents say this practice is just another way for schools to preference white students, as historically white people were the only ones able to attend these institutions, there are a lot more white offspring in the legacy pool. Giving those students an advantage because of their birth is unfair, they say, to the current kids of color who are out-performing them academically and have more of a merits-based claim on these coveted and limited spots.

For clarification purposes, while all schools might employ legacy policies, the real focus of this battle is zeroing in on the Ivy Plus Schools in the US, which would include the eight actual Ivies and a few additional universities that are just as prestigious and competitive but not located in the Northeast, including Duke, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern.

There’s no question that the ability to attend one of these storied schools is a privilege in and of itself. Students not only enjoy a rigorous (albeit often incredibly left-wing biased) education, they have a world of connections and opportunities opened to them that simply do not exist at other schools. Their classmates, often the children of the top leaders and businesspeople in our country, are a hefty networking pool in and of itself, and from the US Supreme Court, to top law firms, many of the most desired companies poach their incoming talent pool specifically from these institutions. You don’t have to go to an Ivy to end up on the Supreme Court or in Congress, but the odds are certainly more in your favor if you do.

But are legacy admissions truly hurting people of color and blocking them from accessing these spots in exchange for wealthy, undeserving, children of the elite? A comprehensive new study muddies those waters.

On The New York Times podcast “The Daily,” David Leonhardt said of the study, “I do think it’s the clearest look we’ve gotten behind the scenes at college admissions at these elite schools. And the reason is that it combined admissions records — internal admissions records that several of these colleges gave the researchers access to — with tax returns, which gives us hard data on who it is that is applying to these schools. And that allows us, in a way that we really haven’t before, to get a very clear sense of who’s applying, who’s getting in, and who’s going.”

The study reveals complications to the stereotype that’s being pushed on the Left, which is of bratty, undeserving legacy kids using their mommy and daddy’s name and money to access spots at schools they’re undeserving of. But as Leonhardt said, the truth is affluent kids are on average much more qualified than less affluent kids because they have access to better educational resources, it isn’t that they’re necessarily undeserving to be there.

Nor is the process of legacy admissions responsible for the number of slots the media narrative is giving them credit for. “When you look at the typical class at one of these colleges, about 9 percent of the students come from the top 1 percent of the income distribution, meaning they come from families earning more than $600,000 a year, and didn’t get in because of their academic qualifications,” Leonhardt said.

He continued, “These are still kids who do extremely well in school. But when you compare them to kids with less money who didn’t get in, they don’t do better. And in many ways, that is the core finding of the paper.”

So that’s the finding. When all things are equal, and an admissions professional is making a choice between two very talented individuals with the same scores, the tiebreaker may be that one of the applicant’s parents attended (and likely then donated and/or can pay full tuition) to the school. That doesn’t seem to be a crazy calculation for a private institution to make, to be honest. It’s nuanced, to be sure. The Left would say you should preference the lower-income applicant to ensure more diversity and opportunity for those who’ve not previously accessed it. And that’s a fair argument, but when we’re talking about private institutions, that’s not really something that should be mandated.

And there is a counterargument to the Left’s point as well, which is why should families who’ve done the right things be punished? If someone worked hard enough to get into Harvard the first time around, and then turned around and raised a kid who was capable of doing the same—that’s an impressive feat! It likely required a lot of hard work on the individual’s part, but also on the parent’s. That offspring could represent private school tuitions, extra tutors, long-nights working alongside a child on their homework. Should they then be disfavored in the process because their parents were also scrappy enough to go to Harvard? That doesn’t seem like a fair calculation at all.

As the NYT even admits, “the students who are being admitted are absolutely qualified in terms of a basic sense. Can they do the work? Do they have truly excellent academic outcomes in high school? They do, including the half of legacy students who wouldn’t be there without the boost.”

As the study shows, “the average legacy student has higher academic qualifications than the average non-legacy student.” But the NYT says this is a reflection of American inequality. I’d argue that’s not really a point. Inequality has always, and will always exist. People are not born with the same advantages, and frankly, one of the biggest “privileges” a child can inherit is a two-parent loving home that prioritizes their development.

Furthermore, educated parents (which by the way, are often first-generation educated) not only make more money than their counterparts, they also have more time to spend with their kids, more resources to invest in them, and they tend to have already plotted the higher education path—meaning they have a greater ability to guide their child in the admissions process. There’s no government policy that can counteract that leg-up, nor should we try to because in doing so we disadvantage and punish the people doing the right things. Instead, we should be encouraging, pressuring, and incentivizing people to be better, more involved parents across the board.

But importantly, legacy admissions were actually only a small piece of the pie when it comes to the number of slots being taken at elite institutions. The study revealed two other categories that the NYT say are “perpetuating privilege.”

The first is what they call a “private school polish.” By that they mean that kids who are applying from private high schools have more help with their packaging—better teacher recommendations, more help with their essays, and a wider array of extracurricular activities that will help them stand out.

As the Times put it, “let’s imagine two with identical academic qualifications, test scores, and grades — one of whom comes from a public school and one of whom comes from a private school, the private school applicant is more likely to get in than an equally qualified public school applicant.”

Is this really any surprise though? Everyone knows private schooled and homeschooled kids have better outcomes in life, on average receive a much better education, and have access to more opportunities than those in government schools—that’s why so many American parents sacrifice dearly to provide their kids with these environments.

It’s also why school choice advocates, such as myself, have lobbied so hard for programs that would ensure all American families can use their tax dollars to send their kids to schools that best match their needs and provide the best opportunities. Interestingly, Democrats—who are very much in the pockets of public teachers’ unions—are the biggest opponents of these ideas, which are the only meaningful thing on the table that could truly address inequality that stems from disparate educational opportunities.

Government schools have had decades and billions of dollars to catch up, they’ve only gotten worse overtime. They have always been the most unequal and systemically racist program on the books, tracing back to redlining and the ways schools are both assigned and funded. If anything perpetuates cycles of poverty and locks people of color away from privilege, it’s their government schools.

Yet the Left refuses to look that problem square in the face and instead wants to target parents who are doing the right thing, overcoming the government burden in their path, and getting their kids out of these schools? It’s actually a disgusting and morally destructive pathway. If we keep punishing people who work hard, overcome obstacles, and persevere we will soon have very few of those types of people left. They’re simply going to give up and join the bottom-dwellers and leeches in society seeking to live off others, succumbing to their hardships, and looking for politicians to save them. A society that consistently punishes the doers and the achievers will soon find it has none.

Lastly, the study shows that athletics may be the true privileged class. As the Times reported, “it’s almost every sport today that kids come from affluent backgrounds. Some of the only exceptions happen to be the two highest-profile sports, which is part of how I think our impressions are a little off here. They’re football and they’re basketball.”

And that’s because the kids who are at the top of their sports, whether it be tennis, baseball or sailing, are often having to spend an immense amount of time and money to get there. From equipment, to coaches, to travel leagues, being really good at a sport is incredibly expensive and often requires having at least one parent who can get you to all the practices, training, and competitions—a serious time commitment.

“If you look at one of these Ivy Plus schools and you look at the kids who come from the top 1 percent of the income distribution, about 1 in every 8 of those kids is a recruited athlete. So 1 in every 8 of the very affluent kids at these schools is a recruited athlete. Compare that to lower-income or middle-income kids. Among those kids, only about 1 in 20 is a recruited athlete,” the Times summarized.

And unlike the legacy admissions, the study found “Athletes have lower than average academic qualifications at these schools.” But, it must be pointed out, these students are still academically very impressive and performing at the top of two categories—both at sports and academia, which shouldn’t be minimized. These are still highly impressive individuals. Should these kids not get the opportunity of attending these schools? Should the schools have to take less qualified sportsmen to ensure there is greater economic diversity on their baseball teams? That doesn’t really sound reasonable.

Lastly, according to the study, the people most harmed by all three of these policies are not poor kids. They’re actually the upper to middle class.

“If we restrict ourselves to the students who actually apply to these schools, the most disadvantaged is what we would call the upper middle class. It’s the students from roughly the 70th percentile to the 95th percentile of the income distribution,” the Times reported. “If the privileges for the top 1 percent in this process were to go away, the beneficiaries would not merely be low-income kids. In fact, some of the biggest beneficiaries for these large advantages for the very rich might be the merely affluent,” they continued.

That honestly should be the least surprising finding in all of this. Those in the middle class have long been aware that it’s the most penalized position in this country. The rich can access just about anything due to their wealth, and compensate for barriers thrown their way. The poor get constant assistance, considerations, and tax dollars. The middle class is forced to pay for that all while getting none of the ease of wealth of the rich nor the handouts or special considerations of the poor. Yet even in these discussions, the mention of this group is nowhere in the conversation.

The Problem with Policies to Prohibit These Practices

There can be fair and nuanced debates on the use of these admission practices. But the point is, colleges and universities must look at factors other than merely grades to make their decisions, and in reality, none of these categories are wildly out of line.

As the Times even admitted, the practice of legacy admissions is pretty much the norm. Most people do what their parents have done, both when it comes to schools they attend, professions they pursue, religious denominations they attend, and how they vote in the voting booth.

“If you look around your company, there probably are people who work there whose parents also worked there. If you think about Hollywood or the top singers, a strange percentage of them had parents who were in the same business. Think about labor unions. One of the main ways that people have gotten labor union cards over the decades, going way back to the early 20th century and the rise of unions, was because a plumber had a dad or an uncle or a brother who worked in that same union. That was the legacy admissions for plumbers,” they said.

And people who’ve been affiliated with a school for generations are simply more involved. They go to sporting events, they donate money, they volunteer, they help make connections for faculty, they hire graduates. Those things matter. “Healthy institutions in all kinds of realms of society tend to have people and families who feel a long-term connection to and investment in those institutions,” the Times said.

And to be clear, the non-legacy students who do attend these schools benefit from those legacies. If you attended Harvard and your peers were mostly NOT the current crop of well-connected students currently there, one of the main advantages of attending Harvard would in and of itself disappear.

Additionally, as these schools have become more diverse, so too has the legacy populations. In trying to ban the practice, activists would actually do a lot more harm to minority legacy applicants who stand to benefit from the practice for the first time around.

Furthermore, when we’re talking about private businesses, institutions should have the ability to determine those metrics free from government intervention. And in a true free market, various schools will determine their admittance standards differently—and that’s a good thing. It allows people to vote with their dollars and reward the universities that make the best decisions with more dollars and more students. In this case, it would be easy to measure in a generation which standards produce the best results for graduates.

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Hannah Cox
Hannah Cox
Hannah Cox is a libertarian-conservative writer and co-founder of BASEDPolitics. She's also the host of the BASEDPolitics podcast and an experienced political activist.