End secrecy in school legacy policies

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The New York Times recently ran a story in which a bunch of kids whose parents went to Ivy League schools whined about not being able to get in. See, most top schools have a special deal with kids of alumni that gives them preference for admissions. The schools call these applicants “legacy” students.

The gist of the article was that even though legacy students are accepted three times as often as other students, they have more pressure from their parents to get in. People got all riled up that the article made it sound like legacy admissions made everyone equally stressed, and so The New York Times hosted an online debate in which a bunch of people offered their opinions.

The weakest arguments in my opinion were those of Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and John Brittain, a law professor of the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, who argued that legacy admissions are racist. Kahlenberg claimed that they’re effectively affirmative action for the rich. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it does to him, too. Schools shouldn’t be allowed to give people help who don’t need it, he said. And Brittain said that legacy admissions just perpetuate racial inequalities in college. Legacy admissions make schools remain as they have been, which means primarily white.

A better argument came from higher education administrators Terry Shepard and Debra Thomas, who asserted that legacy admissions aren’t any different than preferences given to in-state students. And college consultant Michelle Hernandez pointed out that bending the rules for student athletes is another kind of exception, and that’s one where the students are often far less academically accomplished than the average admit.

There’s also the monetary aspect. Peter Sacks, author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, emphasizes that alumni give a lot of money. You might as well let them buy their way in if they want. Stephen Trachtenberg, the University Professor of Public Service and former president at George Washington University, offered the courtesy blue-blood opinion. He argued for legacy admissions with the motive that legacy students remind the school of the noble and dignified people who founded it.

All of these arguments had some good points, but here’s where they go wrong. Each of these arguments cannot be addressed without first recognizing a problem in public awareness: an awareness that legacy admissions exist. Legacy admissions feel dishonest to the public, and they’re handled shadily by school administrations.

You want a real debate about legacy admissions? Tell people they exist. It’s easy to do. Put a little paragraph right at the top when you click on the “Admissions” tab. (I’m going to make these numbers up by the way. I would fill in the correct ones, but schools won’t reveal them.) “We receive about 15,000 applications per year. We accept 1,400 of those applicants. We also offer admission to roughly 200 legacy students and 100 student athletes.”

Oh, would that cause a nationwide murmur of discontent? Sorry, I was just trying to bring a little disclosure to the situation.

I think private schools should be able to do whatever they want. It’s their prerogative. And if arguments like the ones in The New York Times forum can appease the public, then all the better. But let’s have a little forthrightness so schools are publicly responsible for their own policies. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.