Preferential treatment for legacy admissions is anti-meritocratic, inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system. In short, it is an engine of inequity. Little wonder that it is unpopular with most Americans, yet supported by the affluent who both oversee the college admissions process and are its primary beneficiaries.Not that I want to defend legacy admissions, a position easy for me to take since none of my children have shown any interest in going to Yale. But I want to call attention to the first item in their rationale: legacy admissions are anti-meritocratic. Whatever is wrong with the world, in the eyes of the meritocrats, can be fixed by more meritocracy. I have a couple of points to make here.
Legacy admissions are no ordinary leg up. In 2011, a Harvard researcher who studied 30 of the nation’s most selective schools found that all legacy applicants had a 23 percent higher probability of admission, while “primary legacy” students (those with a parent who attended the school as an undergraduate, rather than, say, a grandparent or aunt) had a 45 percent higher probability compared with their peers, all other things being equal.
No university has ever said that its mission is to educate the applicants with the highest grades and test scores. Universities believe that they have something very valuable to offer their students, and therefore the ones who have many more applicants than places have thought hard about where to bestow that benefit. They absolutely do not want to be full of nerds who study all the time and then go on to become doctors or bankers. They want to educate leaders, people who will make a mark on the world. They seek out artists, musicians, political activists, and so on because they think these people are likely to make such marks. They want to bring in black and Hispanic students because they want to support the diversification of the American elite, and because they want to shape the leadership of those communities. They value legacies for a bunch of reasons: to keep alumni donations rolling in, yes, but also because connections to alumni in various communities keep their name to the fore, and help them be the center of a community rather than a place random people pass through. And also because they think the children of alumni are more likely to become leaders than others. I mean, Yale did pretty well by its loyalty to the Bushes.
But more than that, I have to ask whether perfect meritocracy is a goal worth pursuing. The trend in America now is to hunt out any deviation from meritocracy and proclaim it unfair, with Republicans slashing at ethnic quotas and Democrats going after anything that benefits the old elite. Is that what we want?
Because let me tell you, the beneficiaries of perfectly meritocratic admissions will not be ordinary native-born Americans. They will be groups hyper-focused on educational attainment, starting with Asian immigrants and their children. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if our top universities were 75 percent Asian? Then would come immigrants from West Africa and the Caribbean. Then Jews. Then people from the existing elite who have been to the best schools and can afford the best tutors and coaches. If that's the sort of university system you want, great, but that is not what the universities want, for a lot of reasons.
Me, I am skeptical because I think we already work far too hard, and that forcing kids to work even harder is a terrible idea.
I don't know what to do instead, and so far as I can tell American is heading down this road regardless of what I think. But meanwhile I have a queasy reaction to any plan that says the solution to our problems is to double down on meritocracy.