The Racial Justice Case for Legacy Admissions

We shouldn’t eliminate legacy preferences just as people of color can finally start benefitting from them.

With last month’s college admissions bribery scandal, legacy admissions have come in for another round of criticism. The mere proximity of unethical rich families and elite colleges was enough to set off the commentariat on how legacy admissions are a form of legalized corruption that protects wealth and privilege. “Fraud and bribery are shocking, yes. But fraud and bribery’s lawful cousins—legacy preferences, athletic recruitment, and other admissions practices that lower the bar for progeny of the rich and famous—are ubiquitous,” the Atlantic’s Alia Wong wrote.

Legacy admissions offend Americans’ sense of a meritocratic ideal. Then again, meritocracy in admissions (the use of “objective” metrics like test scores) hasn’t yielded the outcomes—more racial and socioeconomic diversity at elite colleges—it promised. A 2017 analysis by the New York Times found that the “share of black freshmen at elite schools [6%] is virtually unchanged since 1980.” More Hispanics are attending elite colleges since 1980, but the increase hasn’t kept up with overall population growth, so the gap has actually widened. Matthew Stewart’s 2018 Atlantic cover story showed how the logic and mechanisms of meritocracy have actually led to a self-perpetuating aristocracy. “In 1985, 54 percent of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from families in the bottom three quartiles of the income distribution,” Stewart wrote. “A similar review of the class of 2010 put that figure at just 33 percent. According to a 2017 study, 38 elite colleges—among them five of the Ivies—had more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent.”

Opponents of legacy admissions are very often supporters for increased representation of minorities in elite schools. Their opposition is historically justifiable, given the practice’s racist origins. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, is a leading expert on legacy admissions—and a vociferous opponent of them. He’s done much to reveal their original motivations. “Legacy preferences have a sordid history,” Kahlenberg told Senators last year:

“This admissions boost originated following World War I as a reaction to an influx of immigrant students, particularly Jews, into America’s selective colleges. As Jews often outcompeted traditional constituencies [white Protestants] on standard meritocratic criteria, universities adopted Jewish quotas. When explicit quotas became hard to defend, the universities began to use more indirect means to limit Jewish enrollment, including considerations of ‘character, geographic diversity, and legacy status.’”

Kahlenberg has argued that legacy admissions continue to hurt minority applicants today. He’s cited John Brittain, a former chief counsel at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and attorney Eric Bloom, who note that “underrepresented minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities but only 6.7 percent of the legacy-applicant pool.” But that can almost be entirely explained by the simple fact that underrepresented minorities make up fewer legacy applicants. That’s because so few of their parents and grandparents have attended elite colleges over the past half-century—and many more minorities than before are now seeking entrance. To a large degree, critics of legacy are protesting the demographics of the past generation.

Legacy preferences may have dubious origins, but their effectiveness at protecting and perpetuating privilege and wealth is for the most part undisputed. Also true is that attending an elite college offers minority and lower-income students the greatest chance at upward social mobility. Yes, there is still massive inequality in outcomes among elite college students. But as elite schools continue to place a high premium on racial diversity, more minorities are in a position to join the elite after graduation. And some successfully do. In 2014, Harvard admitted the most black students in its history—and then set a new record in 2018. The majority of Harvard’s Class of 2021 is nonwhite. Similar trends have been underway at other elite schools, including Princeton, Cornell, and Stanford.

Recent social science has shown that even when minorities join the elite, their membership—and that of their children’s—is precarious. A study of intergenerational wealth published last year showed that while a plurality of white boys who grew up rich have remained rich, the opposite has been the case for their black counterparts. Additionally, median black household wealth (not the same as income) has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.

Affirmative action seeks to remediate past injustices and correct for current ones. But what’s also needed are tools to cultivate—and protect—future minority wealth. There are powerful structures in American society that were constructed with the explicit intent of excluding or suppressing minorities. Some of these structures, no doubt, should be dismantled. But some of them, like legacy admissions, can be repurposed to serve the opposite end.

College admissions is in many ways hypocritical and biased. Nevertheless, a rising generation of minorities are learning how to navigate the obstacles and surmount the barricades. More minorities than ever before are poised to enter the upper class. This is exactly the wrong time for those marching under an egalitarian banner to try and destroy a powerful system that, to a potentially significant extent, can help today’s minorities pass on precious wealth and opportunity to the next generation.

Yet that’s exactly what progressives are demanding, and some legislatures appear to be listening. Twenty-five of the 33 families—and 10 of the 17 coaches and university officials—involved in the bribery scandal were based in California. Now the state legislature is considering a scattershot of proposals, including one resolution to “ban any California college or university from granting preferential admissions to donors or children of alumni,” CNN reports. “This would apply to both public and private colleges in the state.”

Minorities who have been fortunate enough to graduate from these elite institutions know exactly what’s at stake. Last year, Ashton Lattimore, a Philadelphia-based African American lawyer who graduated from Harvard, argued with admirable forbearance in the Washington Post to end legacy admissions, despite its potential power to advance minorities’ standing.

“It’s been only a few decades since we were welcomed into predominantly white colleges and universities in any significant numbers; we’ve had only a generation or two to begin building our own legacies. So for some of us, the moral rightness of ending legacy preferences to create a more equitable admissions process comes with a bittersweet edge: It adds one more thing to the pile of privileges that people of color can’t pass down to our children as easily as untold generations of whites have done …

“I wasn’t the first generation to go to college, but my entrance into one of the oldest and most respected universities in the world lifted me — and by extension my family — into an echelon of privilege to which, until then, we hadn’t yet been granted access. And when I had my son, I was warmed by the thought that when the time came for him to apply, the path to Harvard might be just a bit smoother because I had gone before him.

“It’s frustrating but not entirely surprising that legacy admissions stand to be eliminated just as people of color might begin to reap the benefits.”

Ms. Lattimore’s steadfast commitment to a truly meritocratic admissions process—despite what it may mean for her own child and for minorities as a whole–should humble progressives who find it easy to deride legacy admissions. She certainly humbles me as I argue for its preservation.

I only part ways with Lattimore in two ways. I don’t believe a truly meritocratic process is possible, and if it were, I’m convinced it would take more time to create one than it would to solidify minority representation among the elites. American meritocracy, as we now know it, is creating a nearly invulnerable aristocracy. It’s imperative that as many minorities as possible, by whatever means necessary, retain membership to it.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.