That dammed practice of letting people in based on who their parents are. Elitism! It’s shameful and un-American. Why are we still doing this?

So wonder many progressives, in a more or less annual rant that comes around at admissions time. According to an editorial in The New Republic:

The country’s most selective schools continue the deeply unfair practice of favoring legacies in their admissions process. According to journalist Daniel Golden, 33.9 percent of legacy applicants to the University of Pennsylvania were admitted in 2008, compared with just 16.4 percent of the overall pool. The numbers are even more dramatic elsewhere: At Princeton, in 2009, 41.7 percent of legacies were admitted, compared with 9.2 percent of overall applicants. What sort of institution devoted to meritocracy more than quadruples its admission rate for the children of the well-connected?

What sort of institution? Well this isn’t much of a mystery: it’s an institution that relies on significant private funding. It makes a lot of sense for colleges to admit the relatives and children of alumni. That’s because if you don’t admitted them the alumni might get mad and stop giving money.

But even if it’s practical, it does sound a little odd. America is one of the only places in the world where a student’s parent’s alma mater has any bearing on his ability to be admitted to the university of his choice.

And with all the focus on test scores and grades, the college admissions process seems like a merit based slotting system, rewarding the most talented and assigning the untalented, or lazy, to America’s less selective schools. America seems to have no problem with that basic method of operation, believing as it does that the process essentially rewards people for doing a good job and working hard.

Even admissions preferences for athletes, which occasionally come under fire from pundits, is not terribly troublesome. Being a good basketball or field hockey player probably isn’t relevant to one’s academic career, but at least it’s a talent.

And then there are legacy preferences, the tendency of college to reward people for their genealogy. But is it really unfair?

If the practice is unjust, it’s only so in a very limited, and irrelevant “I’m mad because I didn’t get into Dartmouth” sense. The problem with the basic “down with legacies” argument is that it implies that the legacy preferences of selective colleges prevent otherwise deserving people from getting a great education. This is wrong; if someone doesn’t get into his top school only because he’s not a legacy he won’t actually be hurt; he will get into one of the other schools he applied to.

The fact that a high school student didn’t get into Princeton or Dartmouth despite straight A’s, perfect SAT’s, and impressive extracurricular activities is unfortunate, for sure, but it doesn’t matter. Such a student probably will get into Cornell or Williams, and almost certainly will be admitted to George Washington or BU. And all of those schools are pretty much the same in terms of the demographics of the students who go there and the types of jobs they hold and lifestyles they lead once they graduate.

Legacy preferences don’t make America dumber or poorer, or more even more unequal.

There are, in fact, so many applicants to America’s top schools that if Princeton eliminated legacy preferences it would merely admit more affluent, bright students whose parents didn’t go to Princeton. Removing legacy preferences wouldn’t actually put more poor students in; the number of low-income students otherwise capable of being admitted to selective schools is pretty limited.

Elite colleges often talk about the nature of meritocracy, how important it is for wealthy, selective schools to make it possible for students to succeed there. It’s important to hold schools to this pledge, but let’s keep this in perspective.

As the Supreme Court determined in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the private American college does not exist for some ambiguous public improvement project; it exists to do as its trustees see fit. Part of the reason these schools can afford to be so generous is because they have devoted, generous alumni willing to give to make their school great. There’s no evidence that any college will enroll legacy students who aren’t otherwise prepared to succeed to college, but colleges have to keep the wishes of its generous graduates in mind.

That means the institutions can give out scholarships and build new buildings, it also means keeping alumni happy. An easy, and cheap, way to do this is to give legacy preferences. As long as no one gets hurt (and no one really does) the preference for such applicants makes a lot of sense. It’s time to let this one go.

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