Elite colleges, or colleges for the elite? That’s the question that Richard Kahlenberg poses in his New York Times op-ed about legacy preferences in college admissions. He points out that legacy preferences affect more students than traditional affirmative action programs, yet receive very little attention. “Unlike the issue of racial preferences, advantages for alumni children — who are overwhelmingly white and wealthy — have been the subject of little scholarship, no state voter initiatives and no Supreme Court decisions,” writes Kahlenberg, who is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Nearly three-fours of selective research universities use legacy preferences in admissions, as do the majority of selective liberal arts colleges, he says. Studies show that these preferences can increase chances of admission by almost 20 percentage points. The result is that legacies make up 10 to 25 percent of the student population at many selective colleges and universities, Kahlenberg says.

At last year’s Rethinking Admissions conference, Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admissions,” also addressed the issue of legacy preferences. He concluded that children of alumni along with students from wealthy families and athletes make up as much as 40 percent of the student body at many colleges. In Kahlenberg’s column, Golden points out that legacy preferences are “virtually unknown in the rest of the world.”

Kahlenberg has solutions for what he characterizes as higher education’s biggest affirmative action program. “Congress should outlaw alumni preferences at all universities and colleges receiving federal financing, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws racial discrimination at them. Or lawmakers could limit the tax deductibility of alumni donations at institutions that favor legacy children on the principle that tax-deductible donations are not supposed to enrich the giver. If legislators don’t act, it will fall to lawyers to bring suit to enforce the 14th Amendment and the 1866 Civil Rights Act and put an end to this form of discrimination in higher education.”


One Comment

Elizabeth says:

The legacy preference only extends to wealthy alumni. If your legacy child needs financial aid there is no bump and applicants with lower high school results who can pay full tuition will get in – this is true at highly selective schools that claim to be need blind. I have my child’s rejection (not from Wake) to prove this. I wish the schools would just be honest about this and stop marketing themselves as need blind or if they are need blind only for certain groups (URMs/athletes/first generation) just say so. If I knew then what I knew now, my child would have applied to a much different cohort of schools