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Oct 6, 2010 9:37 am

Does Your School Give a Leg Up to Legacies?

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Food for Thought

Inside Higher Ed

When college officials talk about the extra help they provide to applicants who are alumni children (and it’s rare to get them to talk about the topic outside of alumni circles), they tend to say a few things: that the preferences are modest, just an extra “tip” for some well-qualified applicants; that alumni children likely would have had a much greater chance than others of being admitted even without the preference; and that such modest boosts are a small price to pay for the spirit of community and philanthropy created by multigenerational ties to a college.

What if none of that is true?

What if the alumni preferences are significant? What if significant numbers of these alumni children wouldn’t have gotten in anyway? And what if -- contrary to conventional wisdom -- alumni preferences have no impact on alumni giving? Those what-ifs are all true, according to a book being published and released today by the Century Foundation (and distributed by the Brookings Institution Press). The book is a collection of research articles by scholars, journalists and lawyers arguing that much of what colleges have said over the years about alumni admissions preferences isn’t true -- and that they amount to the book’s title: Affirmative Action for the Rich.

Chronicle of Higher Ed

Legacy preferences, which provide a leg up in college admissions to applicants who are the offspring of alumni, are employed at almost three-quarters of selective research universities and virtually all elite liberal-arts colleges. Yet legacy preferences have received relatively little public attention, especially when compared with race-based affirmative-action programs, which have given rise to hundreds of books and law-review articles, numerous court decisions, and several state initiatives to ban the practice.

The secrecy surrounding legacy preferences has perpetuated a number of myths, including the following:

1. Legacy preferences are just a "tie breaker" in close calls.

While some colleges and universities try to play down the impact of legacy preferences, calling them "tie breakers," research from Princeton's Thomas Espenshade suggests that their weight is significant, on the order of adding 160 SAT points to a candidate's record (on a scale of 400-1600). Likewise, William Bowen, of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and colleagues found that, within a given SAT-score range, being a legacy increased one's chances of admission to a selective institution by 19.7 percentage points. That is to say, a given student whose academic record gave her a 40-percent chance of admissions would have nearly a 60-percent chance if she were a legacy.

The children of alumni generally make up 10 to 25 percent of the student body at selective institutions. The proportion varies little from year to year, suggesting "an informal quota system," says the former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden. By contrast, at the California Institute of Technology, which does not use legacy preferences, only 1.5 percent of students are children of alumni.

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