Legacy Admissions Don’t Work the Way You Think They Do

Just four days after the Supreme Court rejected racial preferences in college admissions, a consortium of Black and Latino interest groups filed a complaint against Harvard concerning a different kind of preference: the special consideration given to the children of alumni. The filing notes that the practice of legacy admissions disproportionately benefits white applicants. If racial considerations are to be strictly limited, the plaintiffs argue, other considerations that effectively favor some racial groups must also go.

It’s a powerful argument. In 2018, Princeton University, my employer, accepted around 5 percent of applicants overall, yet for legacies the rate was around 30 percent. Why set aside a special access lane for predominantly white children who are already the beneficiaries of so many social and economic advantages? Factor in the evidence that legacy admissions don’t even increase alumni giving — presumably the strongest rationale for the preference — and the policy starts to seem not just immoral but downright nonsensical.

Yet before the dismantling of affirmative action, legacy admissions had some unexpected and surprising effects. Legacy students got a leg up in the admissions process, but they were already on the path to success, just by virtue of being born into privilege. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that going to an elite school like Princeton, as opposed to a less selective college, made no difference to their earnings later in life.

One group, however, got a big economic boost from going to elite schools: poor students, students of color and students whose parents didn’t have a college degree. And that’s because elite colleges connected them to students born into privilege — the very kind of student that legacy preferences admit in such large numbers.

We might assume that legacy admissions help privileged students at the expense of underprivileged ones. But I would wager that legacy students, if eliminated, are far more likely to be replaced by other kinds of privileged students than by underprivileged ones. And in ways that are far less obvious, legacy students, with their deep social and cultural connections, are part of the reason less advantaged students get so much out of elite schools.

With the end of affirmative action, this is all moot. Estimates suggest that the percentage of Black, Latino and Native American students at selective colleges will drop significantly in the coming years, in some cases returning to 1960s levels. Colleges and universities that are serious about fairness should eliminate all preferences — not just legacy ones — that advantage the privileged. But as they redesign their systems, it’s worth taking time to consider how the presence of privilege can aide the disadvantaged.

Start by asking yourself what students get out of elite schools. I would like to believe that the most important benefit of these colleges is the exceptional knowledge that professors can deliver in the classroom. But if elite schools delivered special intellectual growth and professional training — what social scientists call human capital — privileged students would benefit greatly from them. And there’s no good evidence that they do.

Instead, other forms of capital play a bigger role: symbolic capital (the value of being associated with prestigious institutions), social capital (the value of your network) and cultural capital (the value of exposure to high-status practices and mores). Graduating from an elite school pays off on all three counts: It affiliates you with an illustrious organization, offers you connections to people with friends in high places and acculturates you in the conventions and etiquettes of high-status settings.

Students who come from privileged backgrounds arrive for freshman year having already accrued most of this capital. Attending an elite college doesn’t add much for them. But for students from underprivileged backgrounds — students who are less likely to have a ready-made network of rich, influential connections, or to have a shared set of cultural references over which to bond with powerful gatekeepers — an elite college experience can be transformative.

Research repeatedly bears this out. Your odds of getting a job at any given workplace increase considerably if your social network links you to it, and the more prestigious the school, the more rarefied the network. The sociologist Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has also shown the effect of “cultural matching” when you apply for a job: Elite recruiters respond favorably to the kinds of cultural “similarities” — shared literary references, playing the “right” sport — that students pick up in fancy colleges, precisely because these shared traits remind hiring partners of themselves.

Likewise, the Boston University sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack has shown that students from underrepresented communities can become relatively privileged as a result of attending elite schools, where they develop relationships with socially advantaged peers and pick up on valuable cultural cues.

Of course, no college ever set up a fast lane for legacy applicants just as a favor to minority and low-income students. But the fact remains that if elite colleges decided to admit only minority and low-income students, this effect would be much less pronounced. With the end of affirmative action, the peculiar upside of legacy admissions fades away — and the policy becomes impossible to justify.

I would be glad to see legacy admissions go. But I don’t imagine getting rid of them would do much to balance the scale in favor of those from historically marginalized and excluded backgrounds. Legacy students are just a tiny proportion of the pool of privileged kids who are rich in symbolic, social and cultural capital. Even without the extra boost legacies currently get, it would be almost impossible to offset the advantages of wealthy families who can pay for all the experiences and qualities that make their children seem miraculously, naturally, qualified.

Shamus Khan (@shamuskhan) is a professor of sociology and American studies at Princeton and the author of “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.”

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