A “Legacy” of Racial Injustice In American Higher Education
By Marybeth Gasman & Julie Vultaggio
It’s admission time again — this month admission staffs at the nation’s elite institutions are scrutinizing hundreds of college applications. It’s also legacy time again.
Yale has the Bushes, Basses and Whitneys. Harvard has the Astors, Roosevelts and Kennedys. Throughout the history of American higher education, the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities have employed legacy policies that prefer the children of alumni. In fact, during the early 1900s, prominent graduates of the colonial colleges, fearing that their sons would be displaced in admission processes, forced the hand of college administrators in myriad ways, such as threatening to withhold donations and using their connections with university higher ups to pull strings. Conversely, according to historian Dr. Marcia Synnott, immigrants’ demands for admission to the nation’s elite institutions initiated questions of “whom to educate and why.”
In the 1960s, as the pressure for racial integration intensified, acceptance rates for the children of alumni increased in some cases to as much as three times higher than that of the past. Given resistance on the part of historically White institutions to enroll Blacks during the civil rights era, legacy policies may have furnished an excuse to reject racial minorities without resorting to the quotas used in the early 20th century to exclude Jews. As a result, colleges became “citadels of Anglo-Saxon culture.”
First, it is important to acknowledge the benefits institutions gain from legacy admissions. Research shows that preferential treatment given to legacies keeps alumni happy, has the potential to increase giving and can strengthen institutional culture. In general, most colleges and universities aim to have satisfied, generous graduates. However, as Dr. Jerome Karabel argues in his 2005 book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, advocating for legacy preferences with the goal of increasing alumni donations becomes less persuasive as endowments soar over $20 billion. Likewise, while many colleges and universities long for an institutional culture rooted in tradition, when that culture is built on a tradition of exclusion, perhaps it should be changed.
Because legacy admits are typically wealthy, White, fourth-generation college students, they offer little to colleges and universities in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, according to multiple sources, over 90 percent of legacy admits are White Protestants. Thus, legacy admits systematically reproduce a culture of racial and economic privilege.
Research shows that legacies enjoy a 25 percent advantage in admission processes at selective institutions, whereas Blacks receive only an 18 percent advantage due to affirmative action. According to Princeton demographer Dr. Thomas Espenshade, for example, being a legacy applicant is the equivalent of receiving a 160-point boost on the SAT. So, why aren’t we seeing controversial lawsuits filed against legacy applicants? Legacy admission policies not only have a potentially negative impact on students of color, they also diminish the chances of admission for low-income and first-generation students.
Thus, many scholars assert that legacy preference is “affirmative action for rich White people.” In the words of Daniel Golden in his 2007 book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges, “even as conservative critics paint affirmative action for college-bound minorities as giving African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans an unfair advantage over more capable White candidates, the truth is the reverse. The number of Whites enjoying preference far outweighs the number of minorities aided by affirmative action.” Perhaps emphasizing this class-based discrimination will lead to legal challenges to legacy policies, since many Americans are more willing to acknowledge “race-less” economic partiality than race-based inequality.
With respect to admission rates, several scholars note the significant advantages afforded to the children of alumni at Ivy League institutions. In 2002, for example, Harvard accepted a mere 11 percent of its total applicants, but admitted 40 percent of its legacy applicants. In 2003, Penn admitted 21 percent of its total applicants and 51 percent of its legacy applicants. However, perhaps indicative of change on the horizon, Penn admitted 16 percent of its total applicants in 2007 and only 34 percent of legacy applicants.
Currently, few Blacks and Latinos benefit from legacy preferences. Since the number of students of color graduating from highly selective, historically White institutions in the ’60s and ’70s was low, there are currently few second-generation students of color at these institutions. Given the demographic profile of the nation’s elite institutions, with only 3 to 9 percent Black and Latino enrollments, it is not likely that students of color will benefit from legacy policies in the near future. Highly selective institutions can continue to call for increased access, but until they re-examine their legacy polices and make substantive changes, large-scale diversity will continue to be hindered. Given the lingering racism in our country, it is possible that when Blacks and Latinos can benefit from legacy preferences, we will begin to see the challenges to this practice.
— Dr. Marybeth Gasman is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Julie Vultaggio is a research assistant and Ph.D. student at Penn.
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