Earlier today I attended a discussion about legacy preferences in college admissions.

A new book, Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, edited by Century Foundation fellow Richard Kahlenberg, sketches the history of legacy preferences and looks at public policy options to curtail them.

Legacy preferences matter a lot in college admissions. Among elite national schools, the vast majority, some 85 percent, use these preferences in making admissions decisions. Still, I’m left wondering what the problem really is.

There was a lot of interesting information discussed here. Legacy status is apparently equal to 160 points on the SATs. Legacy status increases the likelihood that one will be admitted by 20 percentage points (i.e. if one was ordinarily 40 percent likely to be admitted, legacy status would increase your chances to about 60 percent).

America is apparently the only place on earth where linage matters in higher education admissions. This is fascinating and perhaps central to the point about why legacy preferences should end. It’s seems so, well, un-American, giving preferences to children because their relatives attended the same school, right?

But then again, America is also one of the only places on earth where families are expected to bear the majority of the cost of college. Shouldn’t the family then matter to the admissions decision? That might be a case of arguing that two wrongs make a right but so be it. Is it more appropriate to make a family pay $55,000 a year for college while at the same time ignoring the family’s relationship to the college?

Furthermore, despite apparently extensive research, no one could really demonstrate why legacy preferences are objectively unjust or why it hurts society as a whole. I suspect this is because it doesn’t.

The book explains why legacy preferences matter:

Preferences for the children of alumni are concentrated in selective institutions and may determine whether students are accepted at particular institutions.

The evidence suggests that going to a selective college or university does in fact provide considerable advantages. For one thing, wealthy selective colleges tend to spend a great deal more on students’ educations. Research finds that the least selective colleges spend about $12,000 per student, compared with $92,000 per student at the most selective schools. In addition, wealthy selective institutions provide much greater subsidies for families. At the wealthiest 10 percent of institutions, students pay, on average, just 20 cents in fees for every dollar.

Selective colleges are also quite a bit better at retention. If a more-selective school and a less-selective school enroll two equally qualified students, the more-selective institution is much more likely to graduate its student. Moreover, future earnings are, on average, 45 percent higher for students who graduated from more-selective institutions than for those from less-selective ones.

This information, however, would only be relevant if legacy preferences kept otherwise qualified students from selective schools and forced them to attend nonselective ones. This is just not what happens.

If I am a high school student applying to college and I’m not admitted to my top school due to legacy preferences, I will end up attending another school that is, from a national perspective, almost identical to the school I wanted to attend. I’ll get about the same kind of job afterward and make the same kind of money. Princeton or Penn, Texas A & M or Texas Tech, it’ll all work out pretty much the same way in the end.

It might be personally frustrating and it might even seem “unfair” but would it matter for society? Do legacy preferences make Americans poorer? Do they make Americans less well educated?

As former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg—someone with whom I do not always agree—said at the discussion, “All of this is nonsense.”

Admissions criteria have in America always been based on some vaguely scientific things and a lot of ambiguous, subjective things. Until someone can demonstrate that the United States as a whole is actually injured by legacy preferences, this doesn’t seem like an issue that really matters. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer