College Admissions and the Legacy Dilemma

The Williams family — Wahoos all. Photo credit: The New York Times

by James A. Bacon

The issue of legacy admissions to prestigious colleges and universities poses a ticklish problem for conservatives who support meritocratic criteria and oppose racial preferences. There is nothing meritocratic about giving preferential treatment to family members of alumni who, by virtue of having graduated from a prestigious institution, already enjoy a leg up on life.

Stereotypically, one thinks of White youngsters named Biff or Muffy benefiting from the legacy system, but that’s changing now that African-Americans and other minorities have begun graduating from America’s top institutions in large numbers.

Such is the case of Anastasia and Sanford Williams and their children, all of whom have graduated from the University of Virginia. Pictured in a New York Times article about admissions, they feel conflicted. Sanford wants to open up opportunities for other African-Americans. Yet he supports legacy preferences, reports the NYTimes, “as long as they are a small part of the admissions process.”

In America today, the top tier of universities give preference to two groups in admissions: the offspring of alumni (mostly but decreasingly White) and favored racial/ethnic minorities (namely Blacks and Hispanics but not Asians). Everyone else suffers a significantly diminished chance of being selected.

About 14% of last year’s first-year and transfer students admitted to UVa were legacies, the Times quoted Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment, as saying.  In a meeting of Black alumni this year, he said, “I was talking with people one by one, and three of the first five questions had to do with legacy admissions for students of color.”

As Walter Smith and I documented in a June post, 33% of in-state non-legacy Black residents applying to the University of Virginia received offers from the admissions office compared to 53% of in-state legacy Blacks. Legacy status favored White applicants by a similar margin, although a significantly lower percentage of Whites were invited to attend.

The big losers from the current system are (1) Asians and (2) non-legacy Whites. Although a high percentage of Asians are extended offers, that’s because they exceed all other racial/ethnic groups in academic achievement. Adjusted for SAT scores and other objective criteria, Asians are discriminated against. If you’re a non-legacy White, your odds of being admitted are only 22%.

I expect that the legacy system will persist. It’s integral to building alumni loyalty — the kind of loyalty that results in alumni stroking checks to the never-ending fund-raising campaigns. University administrators may be ideologically woke — persuaded that the nation’s institutions, including higher education, are systemically racist — but they will not let their principles stand in the way of raising more money. And now that universities have a significant cadre of minority alumni, it becomes ever more difficult to portray the legacy preference as a carve-out for White kids.

We have a lot of Wahoos in my family. I attended UVa. So did a sister, a daughter, a niece, and a step daughter-in-law. The extended Bacon family — or at least those members who qualify academically — would benefit from the legacy system. But I think it should be abolished. Applicants should get in on their own merits, not because mommy and daddy went there and might bequeath a large sum in their wills. I don’t think there should be racial/ethnic preferences either. As the flagship university in the Virginia public higher-education system, UVa  should accept the most academically gifted students who apply.

If you want a meritocratic society — not a society based upon racial privilege, either for Whites as in the past, or certain minorities as is the case now — and if you want to maintain intellectual consistency, you have to support doing away with the legacy system. UVa already has a $14 billion endowment at last count. By God, how much more money does it need? How much more money can it usefully spend?