Legacy Preferences: Tolerable, and Irrelevant, Corruption

Russell Nieli, a lecturer at Princeton’s department of politics, has an interesting piece up today about legacy admissions. As I’ve argued before, I find most policy discussions about ending legacy preferences oddly weak. Legacy preferences don’t really seem to hurt anyone much, nor would removing them seem to help much.

At the Manhattan’s Institute’s higher education section, Minding the Campus, Nieli writes that:

Many of us are conflicted on the legacy issue. The case against legacy preferences presented by people like [Richard] Kahlenberg, [Daniel] Golden, and Peter Sacks tugs at our meritocratic heart strings, but our pragmatic sense pulls in a different direction. There is something unseemly about lowering admissions standards to a highly competitive college because one’s parents attended the college or because you have a billionaire father likely to make a seven-figure donation if you are admitted. In much of the rest of the world the American practice of granting preferences to the children of alumni is seen as indistinguishable from bribery.

But in those same places, colleges and universities are usually state-funded and don’t have to go hat in hand looking for private money.

Yes. Legacy preferences might be “unfair” but college admissions were never fair.

In America we only vaguely suggest that university education should be based on merit. With its high cost and arbitrary admissions practices, the academy is an odd institution, and most Americans know the right of entry to it is oddly weighted. Until we take serious steps to make college education actually fair (cheap, accessible, high-quality, supportive) tinkering around the edges with legacy admissions won’t make any difference.

Not that it matters anyway. “For me, legacy and donor preferences are a tolerable corruption,” Nieli writes. “I cannot support the movement to eliminate them.” Nice to know, but there’s really little reason to worry. Legacy preferences are essential to the fund raising strategies of the world’s most powerful universities. They’re not going away.

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