In response to a call from the Senate education committee seeking input for ideas on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, TCF senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg submitted the following letter on the topic of legacy preferences in college admissions.
Dear Senators Alexander and Murray:
Thank you for the invitation to submit comments to your committee in advance of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA).
I am a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit think tank founded in 1919 with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. I have been researching and writing about issues of inequality in education for more than two decades. I am the author of six books and the editor of 10, including one which covers a topic which I hope you will consider in the reauthorization of the HEA: the use of legacy preferences at public and private colleges receiving federal funds. In this letter, I will lay out (1) some brief background information on preferences that provide an admissions boost to the relatives of alumni; (2) the federal interest in this issue; and (3) policy ideas for reform.
Background on Legacy Preferences
Admissions preferences for the offspring or relatives of alumni, as journalist Daniel Golden has noted, are “virtually unknown in the rest of the world”; they are “an almost exclusively American custom.” Within the U.S., legacy preferences are widespread at selective colleges. Of the nation’s top 100 national universities in U.S. News & World Report, roughly three quarters employ legacy preferences. Of the nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges, virtually all do.
Legacy preferences have a sordid history. 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 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.
Sometimes legacy preferences are defended as a mere tiebreaker among equally qualified students but they are nothing of the sort.
Sometimes legacy preferences are defended as a mere tiebreaker among equally qualified students but they are nothing of the sort. Research from the Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade of 10 highly selective colleges suggests being a legacy provides a boost equivalent to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600 points). And in 2011, research on 30 elite schools from the higher-education expert Michael Hurwitz found that the children of alumni saw a 45 percentage-point increase in their chances of admission compared to otherwise equally qualified candidates who were not legacies, controlling for factors such as SAT scores, athlete status, gender, race, and “many less-quantifiable characteristics.”
At a time when universities are seeking to diversify by race and socioeconomic status, legacy preferences, on average, negatively impact minority and low-income students. John Brittain, a former chief counsel at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and the attorney Eric Bloom 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.
Legacy preferences are often justified as a fundraising tool, but there is no convincing evidence that the existence of favorable treatment for the children of alumni is tied to increased giving. Chad Coffman, of Winnemac Consulting, and his co-authors examined alumni giving from 1998 to 2007 at the top 100 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report) to test the relationship between giving and the existence of alumni preferences in admissions. Controlling for the wealth of alumni, they found “no evidence that legacy-preference policies themselves exert an influence on giving behavior.” The researchers also examined giving at seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences during the period of the study. They found “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result of abolishing legacy preferences.” For example, after Texas A&M eliminated the use of legacy preferences, in 2004, donations took a small hit, but then they increased substantially from 2005 to 2007. Superb institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, manage to raise sufficient funds without resorting to legacy preferences.
Even if legacy preferences did increase donations, the policies send a very unfortunate message to students about what values guide institutions of higher education. As the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves notes, upper-middle class Americans typically give their children advantages, by reading to them at night or purchasing houses in neighborhoods with strong schools. But legacy preferences cross the line. “This isn’t dad helping us by playing catch in the backyard,” Reeves writes, “This is dad bribing the coach.” Along the same lines, in an October 2017 speech, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, William Dudley, declared that giving the children of alumni preferential access “is patently unfair, and scrapping such policies would help increase social mobility.” He went on to ask: “Do we really want to encourage what is essentially a ‘donate to admit’ policy at our major universities?”
The Federal Role in Regulating Legacy Preferences
The federal government provides extensive support to both public and private institutions of higher education on the theory that colleges and universities are serving the public interest. Support comes in the form of direct research grants, federal aid for financial aid to enable student to attend, and extensive tax benefits that shield college endowments from all but the smallest federal tax.
Congress has appropriately sought to outlaw racial discrimination at public and private colleges that receive federal funding. Although court have recognized that the academic freedom of institutions requires that government have a very limited role in guiding admissions processes, the Supreme Court has upheld laws forbidding even private colleges from engaging in racial discrimination. There is, likewise, an appropriate role for the federal government to regulate or even outlaw practices that provide a leg up in admissions not based on merit but on lineage and bloodlines.
Proposals for Reform of Legacy Preference Policies
In reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the Congress should consider two paths for reform of legacy preferences.
As a modest first step, the Congress should require that all colleges and universities receiving federal funding report, on an annual basis, the percentage of students admitted who are legacies, and a breakdown of the race and socioeconomic status (as measured by Pell eligibility) of such students. Doing so would help identify colleges and universities that rely on legacy preferences in a way that disadvantages certain racial and economic groups. A proposal along these lines was advanced by the late Senator Edward Kennedy in 2004.
Even better, the Congress should require that all colleges and universities receiving federal funding cease to discriminate based on lineage, just as they are forbidden from engaging in racial discrimination. Ancestry should play no role in whether a student is admitted or denied admission to universities that receive federal funding. Everyone at institutions receiving federal support should be given equal access regardless of lineage.
Richard D. Kahlenberg
Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation