Ah, legacy preferences. So easy to get annoyed about, so hard to defeat.

A common defense of legacy preferences, the extra weight given by colleges to applicants with relatives who are alumni, is that they don’t really matter that much. If a candidate has a relative who attended the school that adds, what, two points to his application? Well, maybe it matters a little bit more than we thought. According to an article by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times:

According to the study, by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, applicants to a parent’s alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission of nonlegacy applicants. Those whose parents did graduate work there or who had a grandparent, sibling, uncle or aunt who attended the college were, by comparison, only twice as likely to be admitted.

The Hurwitz study looked at admissions policies at 30 highly selective, anonymous (but, come on) American institutions of higher learning. Some observers report shock and dismay. Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation said, “It’s fundamentally unfair because it’s a preference that advantages the already advantaged.”

Still, it’s not clear that anyone is actually materially or educationally hurt by legacy preferences, even if it turns out these preferences matter a lot.

The United States is one of the few places in the world where we expect parents to pay the majority of the cost for their children to attend college. Given this, it seems entirely appropriate for the family to matter in the admissions decisions.

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