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May 06, 2003

legacy preferences

At a seminar today, some colleagues and I discussed Senator John Edwards' proposal to eliminate the preference for "legacies" (children of alumni) in college admissions. Some people are saying that legacy preferences are on the same footing with affirmative action for racial minorities and women. If we ban affirmative action as a form of discrimination that undermines meritocracy, we should ban legacy admissions as well. If we keep one, we may (or must) keep the other. A third problematic policy is the preference that public universities often give to in-state students. Isn't it discriminatory for UC Berkeley to prefer Californians?

(It is worth noting that being denied admission to Harvard because one's place went to a "legacy" is not a tragedy—there are many other fine schools. Being denied admission or financial aid at Michigan because one lives in Kentucky is at least as unfair.)

I think this issue is fairly complicated. First, there are practical considerations. Presumably a policy banning legacy preferences would cause at least some rich alumni to curtail their contributions, thus removing some financial support from scholarship and education. Likewise, a policy banning in-state preferences could lead states to withdraw support from their own colleges. However, either or both of these fears might turn out to be unwarranted.

If one justifies legacy preferences mainly on practical, economic grounds, then it doesn't make sense to prefer the children of alumni who have never contributed anything to a college. Yet most colleges deny that they prefer donors' children; that would be too crass. Implicitly, their argument seems to rest on freedom of association and the value of preserving their membership as a community over time.

Private universities probably have a right as associations to prefer their own members (alumni, staff, and current students). That doesn't make a legacy policy morally admirable, however. It certainly has the disadvantage of preserving a heriditary elite and undermining meritocratic competition. Thus we might want to use the leverage of federal funding to discourage such preferences. On the other hand, maybe it is admirable to build community bonds within private associations. In that case, is it equally acceptable for states to treat themselves as exclusive communities that prefer their own citizens? Should federal policy allow or discourage this?

Posted by peterlevine at May 6, 2003 11:23 AM