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Admissions Equity

Problems with preferences

November-December 2006

Several years ago, a journalist at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow whispered a pitch for what he thought an explosive story: that Harvard gave admissions preference to “legacies”—children of alumni. I knew that, I replied. I had in mind M. Elaine Mar’s vivid story of her freshman encounter with an alumnus, the parent of a classmate whose middle name she subsequently found “adorning one of the buildings in the Yard” (“Blue Collar, Crimson Blazer,” November-December 1995, page 47), and the genealogical table that illustrated “The Welds of Harvard Yard: History through a Family Lens” (November-December 1998, page 69).

In a new millennium, with competition for spaces at elite colleges ever more intense, alumnus Daniel Golden has taken a fresh look at admissions. Rather than “fostering the American dream of upward mobility and equal opportunity,” he finds biased policies that “channel the children of the privileged into premier colleges, paving their way into leadership positions in business and government” while lower-income students languish outside the gates. College admissions, in his view, has taken the place of primogeniture in fostering aristocracy. Golden ties the legacy effect to related phenomena, such as the rise of upper-income sports (womens crew, horseback riding) under the pressure of Title IX: “[A]thletic preference favors the wealthy, the white, and the well-connected.”

In a sense, this is old news. William G. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton, highlighted the skewed socioeconomic character of elite institutions’ student bodies—and admissions preferences given legacies, “development” cases, and recruited athletes—in a 2004 address. Harvard and other institutions had begun earlier that year to lessen the tuition burden on lower- and middle-income families, and to recruit their children in a more focused way. Bowen and coauthors fleshed out the argument in their 2005 book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (excerpted in these pages, May-June 2005, page 48). They cited Golden’s 2003 Wall Street Journal series on admissions practices and preferences; Golden, in extending his reporting for this book, cites Bowen et al., along with other standard sources on admissions practices, preferences, and outright biases.

What makes The Price of Admission worth adding to the pile of such literature? First, Golden has fun making trouble in the best journalistic sense. He managed to get students—legacies and their “unhooked” peers—on the record. Indexing available information, he has linked membership on the Committee on University Resources (the most generous donors and fundraisers) with relatives’ attendance at Harvard. In pursuit of various flavors of admissions preference, he tracks Gores, Frists, and Kennedys through the institutions where family members have enrolled.

My favorite example of this kind of anecdote has nothing to do with legacies, Goldens chief bête noire (although he finds similar fault in preferences for faculty children, celebrities, and the just plain rich). He reports that the University of Virginia awarded a nominal athletic scholarship to Ty Grisham, the son of wildly successful novelist John Grisham, to assure his admission in the hope—soon realized—of a parental gift to renovate the stadium.

Golden packages this kind of naming-names digging—a guilty pleasure for readers—with a knack for populist phrasing (“kowtowing to wealth,” “the preferences of privilege”) that probably reflects the broader public’s skepticism, even resentment, of elite educational institutions. Though the academic literature does not capture those sentiments, the higher-education community would do well to recognize them.

Colorful though this approach is, Golden’s method has limits. He acknowledges that colleges should not “automatically accept applicants with the best test scores or grades,” but his examples lean heavily on just those criteria. In fact, standardized test scores increasingly are seen as having limited predictive value; colleges are beginning to make them optional. Readers cannot always assess from Golden’s resonant individual cases which students’ courses of study were more rigorous, recommendations less compelling, or extracurriculars truly indicative of initiative and leadership. Admissions officers at Harvard and Yale, for example, must take those factors into account as they winnow out more than nine-tenths of their already self-selected applicants.

Golden cites as examples of purely meritocratic, “wealth-blind” institutions Caltech, Cooper Union, and Berea College. Each has real strengths, and Caltech’s scientific work is incredibly expensive. But none of those institutions spends, say, $100 million per year on acquisitions and staffing for its library system, nor offers dozens of languages modern and archaic: the vital cultural functions performed by some research universities. Such costs are assuredly not financed by government grants or corporate philanthropy. In recent years, presidents including Yale’s Richard Levin and Princeton’s Shirley Tilghman have defended legacy preferences precisely because of these larger functions supported by donors, some of whose ties are strengthened by legacies. Golden does not dwell on this nontrivial aspect of the university entity.

There are larger ambiguities, too. Golden decries preferences for athletes in “patrician sports.” But he would retain them for other sports, as measures of the “candidate’s own hard work and excellence,” not “parental achievement.” Not entirely true: success in even some mainstream sports now practically requires expensive outlays for equipment, coaching, or private academies. Looking beyond the scope of this book, Golden doesn’t wade into the murky waters surrounding state merit-scholarship programs for students who attend their public colleges (like those in Georgia and Massachusetts): the “merit ”appeal is politically winning, but the potential diversion of funds from needy applicants to middle- and upper-class suburbanites may be terrible socioeconomic policy. Americans’ enthusiasm for merit and support for those in need may, in other words, depend on where the cash flows.

That larger problem remains unaddressed. “Legacy” children are often excellent college candidates because they come from families who have already benefited from excellent higher education—and who have the means to provide enriching college-preparatory experiences. None of the reforms Golden suggests, beginning with abolishing legacy preference, will fill the pipeline with future applicants whose elementary and secondary schooling leaves them ill-equipped for a demanding higher education.

Bowen argued for a less sweeping measure: he would retain the legacy preference—private institutions create resources and incur costs assuming the flow of gifts from alumni—but put an equal “thumb on the scale” for lower-income applicants. Whatever policy you prefer, The Price of Admission is a powerful reminder that the public will increasingly require selective colleges to defend their preferences; that not all are prepared to make their complex case well; and that some of their practices, finally, seem indefensible today.

~John S. Rosenberg