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Do "legacy" admits make up for lower GPA's in other ways?

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 30, 2010 04:42 PM

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Using my post yesterday on "legacy" admits as a jumping-off point, one of the two authors of Observational Epidemiology suggests that there may be legitimate reasons to give an admissions boost to alumni children--at least to those rarified few who occupy the Senator's- son/Internet-mogul's-daughter category.

The author's logic has little to do with building institutional loyalty, colleges' stated rationale for this form of affirmative action. Instead, it's a straightforward calculation about the likelihood of future professional success. Brains and hard work are important to such success, of course, and these are the qualities stressed in the (largely) meritocratic admissions process. But personal connections play an important role in success, too:

Connections are governed by the laws of graph theory. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the subject (since that would require research and possibly actual work on my part), but as anyone who has read even the cover blurbs on Linked or Small Worlds can tell you, adding a few highly connected nodes (let's call them senator's sons) can greatly increase the connectivity of a system.

It would be interesting to model the trade off between picking a well connected legacy over a smarter, harder-working applicant given the objective of producing the greatest aggregate success. Because of the network properties mentioned above, it wouldn't be surprising if the optimal number of legacies turned out to be the 10% to 15% we generally see.

Meanwhile, a contributor at Gene Expression takes the exact opposite view. The author buys the (contested) notion that attending an elite college itself leads to a lifetime of higher earnings (i.e., that the college adds something above and beyond the qualities that got you admitted). Given that lifetime benefit, he says, it is doubly scandalous that admissions would be partly based on who your mother or father is.

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