Why does one researcher say admissions legacy preferences must end soon?

Ladmission preferences have been in effect forever. So they can seem as permanent as any monument. But as recent history reminds us, sometimes monuments must fall.

James S. Murphy put it this way in a new report: “It’s time for schools and universities to catch up with the 1770s and say goodbye to what essentially amounts to an aristocratic system in which a few children inherit a birth advantage. a process that wraps itself in the garb of meritocracy.

It’s baked into American mythology: We don’t believe in aristocracy. And we think education is actually the antidote to aristocracy.

Murphy, a senior policy analyst at Education Reform Now, brings her researcher and author’s voice to a long-running debate: Is it right for colleges to give the children of alumni a leg up in the admissions process? The issue gained renewed urgency after the Supreme Court agreed this year to hear legal challenges over race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

If the Supreme Court bans the use of race in admissions, as many experts predict it will, selective colleges will all have to reevaluate their admissions practices. And Murphy argues that they have an even greater moral obligation to abandon legacy preferences that overwhelmingly benefit white, wealthy students. Unless, of course, they want the existing gaps between white and non-white students to grow even wider.

Murphy explains that opposition to legacy preferences dates back to the 1960s. Since then, they have been targeted by Democrat and Republican politicians alike (if any T-shirt could unite the right and the left, it might just say, “Ban Entry Now!”). Murphy traces that history and provides an illuminating overview of the present, including a list of colleges using legacy preferences (nearly 800 in 2020, or about half of all institutions that completed the common data set).

That’s a big number, but it’s going down. In 2020, Johns Hopkins University announced that it had stopped considering legacy status. The following year, Amherst College announced the same. These institutions may seem outliers, but Murphy’s research confirms that they are not: Recent data, he found, show that dozens of colleges have abandoned the practice, with little or no at all.

Colleges are not as transparent about the use of legacy preferences. It took an epic lawsuit to overturn the revelation that, as the report notes, children of Harvard alumni with the highest academic ratings are more than twice as likely to be accepted as low-income applicants with similar ratings. Among Murphy’s recommendations: The U.S. Department of Education should require disaggregated data on the use of heritage preferences at each college, allowing the public to see how the practice affects different student subgroups: “If the Supreme Court abandons the race-informed admissions policy in its current term, as expected, the disaggregated data will be important to that decision.” to monitor the impact in the following years.

Recently, Murphy spoke Chronicle about his research, the grip of aristocratic traditions on college admissions, and what he calls “shameful practices.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

James S. Murphy

Courtesy of James S. Murphy

James S. Murphy

Many experts predict that the Supreme Court will soon ban the use of race in receptions. If that happens, you write, it will be “absolutely necessary” for colleges to end legacy preferences. Why?

One thing that the Harvard case did was the impact of many admissions practices on college admissions, including legacy preferences. The other thing it did was make it very clear how important diversity is to highly selective colleges. That’s not to say other colleges don’t care about diversity. It’s just that it’s a more acute issue for highly selective colleges because the standards they set are heavily skewed in favor of wealth. And in American society, wealth is skewed toward white students. So it’s important to say that places like Harvard have a really strong commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. I have no doubt about it.

One of the reasons for the Students for Fair Admissions case was that Harvard has not taken enough race-neutral steps to protect diversity or increase diversity on campus. While I think SFFA’s argument about race is wrong, I think they are right that Harvard could go further. So if campuses are going to maintain their level of diversity, let alone increase it, they absolutely need to remove anything that stands in the way of diversity. And this is simply not disputed: the numbers are there in Harvard’s case and clearly show that legacy preferences favor white students.

So a major shift in context—a land without race-conscious recognition—could have a ripple effect.

Six months ago, I don’t know if I thought the likely outcome of the Harvard and UNC cases would affect the use of legacy preferences. But when I thought about it, two things became clear. One is that, from a practical perspective, colleges need to look at anything they can to free up seats currently reserved for mostly white, wealthy students.

But then there is another ethical question, or a question of public perception. Come next June, when the Supreme Court says that colleges can no longer consider the race of students, which is an important part of the whole human being, it’s almost impossible to imagine that colleges will then stand up and say, “Oh! but we’re fine if we prefer the children of your alumni, I guess that’s impossible to say without blushing, right?

As you can see from your brief overview, legacy preferences are unpopular with the general public and admissions managers because of the high level of attention they place on them.

One of the findings of this study, which wasn’t a big surprise at all, was that people hate legacy preferences. Seventy-five percent of Americans said heritage status should not be a factor in acceptance, according to a Pew survey, which was confirmed by a recent study. The Washington Post study. A more surprising finding was Within higher education in a study where the majority of admissions managers did not support the use of legacy preferences. So everyone hates them, even people working in colleges, except alumni.

I think the Supreme Court decision gives college presidents and boards the cover they need to do something that they know is right and that they’ve probably wanted to do for a while. I don’t think the presidents of Stanford, Yale, and Princeton looked at Johns Hopkins’ decision to drop legacy preferences and said, “Oh, what a terrible idea.” I suspect they were deeply jealous of their bravery.

One eye-opening finding is that 102 colleges have stopped considering legacy status since 2015, which in most cases seems to have happened rather quietly. Did this number surprise you? And what do you think about this trend?

It surprised me. The reason I wanted to explore this is because there is a myth that legacy preferences are an intractable problem, that they are so beneficial to universities that they will fight to the death to hold on to them.

In reality, I found that 80 percent of the 64 uber-selective colleges—colleges that accept 25 percent or less of their applicants—do indeed offer legacy preferences. So when Amherst did it, we were like, “OK, cool. But what about all these other liberal arts colleges? When Johns Hopkins did it, we were like, “Cool. But what about all these other places?”

Most places that give up legacy preference don’t do it with a bang. As I browsed through the data, I identified 102 colleges, and a ton of them were state institutions. In many cases, the flagships had quietly abandoned the exercise, and they did so in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, because they had to tell someone to go and change the box from weighted to weighted. This was really surprising to me and rejects the notion that this is an intractable practice, that we will never get rid of it.

Well, over 100 institutions have done it, but not all have done it so loudly. I wish they would speak louder and more clearly about it. But the number also gave hope that it would inspire similar confidence, especially in our public institutions. It is shocking that any public college or university would give legacy preference. This is a betrayal of their specific mandate to serve students in their state, where taxpayers support them.

Some college leaders have described legacy preferences as a means of creating and maintaining a special community over time that helps nourish the institution, maintain connections, and so on. Duke’s president recently described it as a “family.” What is your response to this reasoning?

This is laughable at best. But frankly, I think it’s kind of grotesque because, as I write in the report, you’re talking about an institution that has a lot of wealth, a lot of power, and a continuing influence on society at large. If you confuse such institutions with the family, you are no longer talking about higher education, but about aristocracy.

It’s baked into American mythology: We don’t believe in aristocracy. And we think education is actually the antidote to aristocracy. The notion that colleges preserve community or family by using heritage preferences flies in the face of this.

I want to go back to something you mention in the report: the tendency of some admitted legacy students to wonder if they deserve admission. Does it reveal or imply the truth about inheritance preferences on a human level?

There are many reasons for getting rid of probate preferences, and the main one is the fundamental issue of fairness and justice. But I also think legacy preferences can have a bad effect on beneficiaries, and that has been reported. Once you’re admitted knowing your father and maternal grandparents went there and knowing it will help you get in, there are lingering doubts. Do I belong here? Did I get in just because my parents went here?

All college admissions officers, boards of presidents, and trustees want students to feel like they belong on campus, right? They want to feel a part of it. Let’s go back to that word “community”. The irony is that inheritance preferences can undermine the very principles of community, family, and belonging that defenders of the custom try to cite as a reason for using inheritance preference. This can have the opposite effect.

So the key question seems to be this: Knowing what we know in 2022, can an institution really claim to represent racial equality and socioeconomic diversity if it prioritizes legacy?

I hope that is the question they ask themselves. And I hope the answer they come to is no. Because the correct answer is that there is no way you can advocate for this preference if you believe your mission is to create a diverse campus that benefits and prepares every student on campus. job.

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