Confronting the Legacy Question

In light of the new study demonstrating the surprising potency of legacy preferences in college admissions, Peter Sacks over at Minding the Campus takes the unusual step of considering how colleges and universities actually justify legacy preferences. He still misses the mark. As Sacks writes:

Closely related to the claim of a private property right that universities exercise when deciding on the composition of their student bodies is a First Amendment claim. According to this argument, private universities have a right to create and maintain the college culture, particularly the kinds of students who contribute to this culture.

Private universities especially stand behind these arguments because of the widespread but false view that they are truly private institutions, whitewashing the fact that they are joined by the hip to the federal government and its largesse.

Well duly noted, but receiving large federal money doesn’t make these institutions public, or mean that they have some ambiguous responsibility to let in more students who aren’t legacies.

In fact, actual public colleges can make their own argument in favor of legacy preferences. Sure they might enjoy some support and funding from the state in which they’re located, but undergraduate students and their parents actually contribute the majority of the funding.

This is because over time government support for universities, as a proportion of per/pupil spending, has been in decline. That’s why legacy status matters, because it makes the university run smoothly. In 2006 legacy donations made of 33 percent of voluntary support for American colleges and universities. It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to pay attention to that group.

What this comes down to is whether the country treats college as a public good or private benefit. We can’t expect universities to drop legacy preferences to perform some vague public service while at the same time giving these schools less money and forcing a greater and greater financial burden on the students under the premise that the individual students are the only ones who benefit from their postsecondary education.

Until we have universities like Sweden’s, which exist as a pure form of country-serving meritocracy (and are free for students and their parents) there’s no reason why legacy preferences need to go, or to think that things would get better without them.

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