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Legacy admissions: Only in America

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 28, 2010 09:44 AM

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Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of the forthcoming book "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions," points out that universities in other countries don't give so-called legacy preferences to sons and daughters of their alumni. (Even Oxbridge colleges don't, despite the class-bound history of British education.) So, he asks, why on earth do we do it in America?

For the most part, American higher education has sought to democratize, opening its doors to women, to people of color, and to the financially needy. Legacy preferences are an outlier in that trend, a relic that has no place in American society. In a fundamental sense, this nation's first two great wars--the Revolution and the Civil War--were fought to defeat different forms of aristocracy. That this remnant of ancestry-based discrimination still survives--in American higher education, of all places--is truly breathtaking.

I suspect that the quickest way to unravel the legacy system would be to pit alumni against one another. That's because such preferences are pitched by colleges to their alumni as a way to foster community, and the colleges promulgate the myth that all alumni get a leg up. And who wants to give up an advantage for one's kids, even if a tad unfair? But dig a little deeper, as Daniel Golden does, in "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates," and you'll see elite colleges falling all over their wealthiest and most famous alumni specifically. Since college admissions is a zero-sum game--and because of the general societal unpopularity of alumni preferences--the more preferences that wealthy donors receive, necessarily the fewer that the ordinary run of alumni get. If the intra-alumni preferences got more exposure, overall support for a system that even its supporters find vaguely embarrassing would weaken considerably.

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