End college legacy admissions too

Sometime this month, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the future of affirmative action in college admissions. 

A pair of lawsuits brought against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, by advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, accuse the effort to admit a more diverse class of systemically disadvantaging Asian applicants.

A decision could come anytime between now and June 30, and many legal analysts expect the conservative-majority court will overturn race-conscious admissions practices.

It would be a consequential and disruptive decision that, in my view, would represent a victory for fairness in the application process.

But it would only do part of the job of making college admissions truly fair: The next behemoth that should be tackled is nepotism.

Thanks to the Supreme Court case, Harvard had to hand over troves of internal data about how they craft their classes. And, when you pull back the curtain on that infamously cutthroat and opaque admissions process, you find rampant backdoors into Harvard.

Supreme Court Justices
This month, the conservative majority Supreme Court looks poised to radically change how college admissions officers are allowed to decide which students to accept or reject.
AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed Harvard’s admissions data. They found that, while Harvard’s admissions rate averaged 6% from 2009 to 2014, special interest groups had a drastically easier time getting in.

A legacy applicant with a close relative who graduated from Harvard had a 33.6% chance of acceptance (the Common Application used by most colleges and universities explicitly asks where your parents went to school, which shouldn’t even be a question).

A student on the “dean’s interest list” — code for someone whose family donated to the school — had a 42.2% shot. And a child of faculty or staff had a 46.7% chance of getting in.

In fact, the researchers found that 43% of white students at Harvard were either legacies, children of faculty, kin of donors, or a recruited athlete. And a staggering 75% of them wouldn’t have gotten in if not for that special status.

Harvard building
Harvard University’s internal admissions data shows rampant bias towards students whose families are connected to the school.

Harvard admits fewer than 2,000 students per class, and its admissions rate has plummeted to just 3.41% this year.

It’s harder than ever to get into Harvard… that is, if you were born with the wrong last name or to parents with the wrong bank balance.

I saw this firsthand when I went to a boarding school. My father never went to college, and I didn’t apply to my mom’s school.

But my peers who were children of Ivy League graduates sailed into their parents’ alma maters, and oftentimes their more qualified classmates received rejection letters from the very same colleges and universities.It was straight up unfair — and everybody knew it.

Girl opening acceptance letters
Legacy students enjoy a considerable leg up over other applicants when applying to Harvard.

Every spot taken by someone who got in for the wrong reasons is a spot stolen from another applicant who busted their butt to get flawless grades and perfect test scores while juggling varsity sports and starting their own company on the side. There are many such stories of unsuccessful Harvard hopefuls.

Booting those kids out for an affirmative action admit is no less justifiable than skipping over them for an graduate’s kid. Both are unfair. And neither should ever happen. A alumnus or donor or professor’s child should have the same odds as anyone else.

If schools like Harvard are truly interested in creating a diverse class, they should be trying to diversify the last names of their students by dumping special legacy considerations. Undoubtedly, doing so would open the door for more first-generation graduates and underprivileged kids.

Harvard fought all the way up to the Supreme Court to maintain their race-conscious admissions process, claiming it’s critical to creating a diverse class.

Harvard graduation
Harvard would open the door for more first-generation graduates and underprivileged kids simply by ending its preference for its own graduates and faculty’s children, and those of its donors.

But, in all reality, getting rid of the special status they confer on kids who know the right people would help achieve that same goal.

In fact, the researchers found that “removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged.”

The fact that we have a meritocracy and not an aristocracy underpins the American dream. Anyone can make it here with hard work and grit.

But schools like Harvard, which are churning out generation after generation of elite graduates from the same rich families, are manufacturing an American aristocracy.

It’s time for that to change.

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