|By Tenisghs (Tenisghs) on Friday, March 21, 2003 - 07:42 pm: Edit|
Legacy Preference At Stake
Affirmative Action Debate Roils Admissions Policy
For Children of Alumni
By DANIEL GOLDEN
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
With two cases challenging affirmative action at the University of Michigan pending before it, the Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of race-based preferences in college admissions. But the cases also may affect the future of a longer-standing kind of preference: the one favoring children of alumni.
The legacy preference, as it is known, is nearly as widespread as those based on race and ethnicity. Colleges like it because it keeps alumni happy and more inclined to donate. But overwhelmingly, the legacy preference benefits whites. Now, calls to abandon the legacy preference are on the rise from minority groups and politicians who see it as a perpetuation of class distinction and white advantage.
Because it isn't racially discriminatory on its face, the preference for children of alumni may be less vulnerable than affirmative action to legal challenge. But politically, the fates of the two preferences appear intertwined. "If the Supreme Court were to end affirmative action, colleges would be under tremendous pressure to reconsider whether they give preference to alumni children, of whom the vast majority are white and privileged," says Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor of education and social policy.
Two state universities, Georgia's and California's, have already dropped legacy preference after having been forced to end racial preferences. A court ruling knocked out the University of Georgia's racial preferences in 2001, and a voter initiative undid those in California in 1996. One Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, is calling for an end to legacy preferences.
But curbing them could have serious financial implications for colleges and universities. Alumni provide 28% of the private donations to higher education -- $6.83 billion in the 2000-2001 school year. When their children are rejected for admission, alumni sometimes react as did Richard Hokin, Princeton 1962. He stopped giving to his alma mater after it turned away two daughters several years ago. "I took it as a personal affront," says Mr. Hokin, chairman of Intermountain Industries Inc., an Idaho natural-gas distributor.
Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, a Washington lobbying group, says, "Without legacy preference, there would be a significant decrease in giving from a core body of traditional support -- families in which at least a second generation has gone to the institution."
The edge that a legacy preference conveys is almost never as large as that conveyed by affirmative-action policies. But most U.S. universities give at least some degree of preference to graduates' relatives, sometimes even a little to grandchildren, siblings and nieces or nephews. Schools are candid in saying that long-term financial support is the chief reason, although some, such as Harvard, also cite the importance of encouraging graduates to get involved with interviewing applicants and other institutional tasks.
Sons and daughters of graduates make up 10% to 15% of students at most Ivy League schools and enjoy sharply higher rates of acceptance. Harvard accepts 40% of legacy applicants, compared with an 11% overall acceptance rate. Princeton took 35% of alumni children who applied last year, and 11% of overall applicants. The University of Pennsylvania accepts 41% of legacy applicants, compared with 21% overall.
At Notre Dame, about 23% of all students are children of graduates.
Some of these "legacies," as the students are often called, tell of an uneasiness akin to that felt by some minorities at elite schools. "I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that I'm a legacy, and that people think I got in because I'm a legacy," says Sara Sedgwick, a Harvard freshman whose Crimson lineage includes five generations on her father's side and four on her mother's. She had straight A's in high school and captained soccer and basketball teams, but her SAT scores -- in the high 1300's -- were below those of about three-fourths of her Harvard classmates. "I thought I presented a good case for myself without it," she says. "With the legacy thrown in, that assured it a bit more."
Deborah Perlman, a psychologist at Georgetown University, says she often counsels legacies there who wonder if they deserved their admission. "There's a self-doubt that creeps in," she says. "You find a parallel feeling among minorities." Princeton's alumni weekly recently published a letter from her and her father, Theodore Perlman -- both legacies at the university -- advocating an end to legacy preference. "The greater good is to be found in equality of treatment," they wrote.
Although universities have always paid special attention to their alumni, the legacy preference was formalized early last century, in some cases partly to limit enrollment of Jews. Today, the practice often has that effect on other groups. At the University of Virginia, 91% of legacy applicants accepted on an early-decision basis for next fall are white; 1.6% are black, 0.5% are Hispanic, and 1.6% are Asian. Among applicants with no alumni parents, the pool of those accepted is more diverse: 73% white, 5.6% black, 9.3% Asian and 3.5% Hispanic.
About half of the legacies Virginia accepted were children of out-of-state alumni. Virginia gives these applicants a break by grouping them with its in-state applicants. The SAT scores of accepted state residents average 30 to 35 points lower than those of accepted out-of-state applicants.
Virginia Admissions Dean John Blackburn makes no bones about the reason for the preference. "In light of very deep budget cuts from the state, our private support particularly from alumni is crucial to maintaining the quality of the institution," he says. "The legacy preference helps ensure that support by recognizing their financial contributions and their service on university committees and task forces." Out-of-state alumni contributed the majority of $1.4 billion raised in a recent university fund drive.
The University of Michigan has a 150-point "Selection Index" for undergraduates, with 100 points usually enough to get in. The university awards a four-point bonus to children and stepchildren of alumni, or one point to grandchildren, spouses or siblings of alumni.
Michigan also gives an automatic 20-point bonus to blacks, Hispanics and native Americans (though not to Asian-Americans). This practice is the target of one of the affirmative-action cases before the Supreme Court -- filed by two white students denied admission in 1997.
Defenders of that racial preference say it compensates for the legacy edge as well as for certain other preferences Michigan awards, such as six extra points given to applicants from under-represented regions of the state. One such region is the Upper Peninsula, which happens to be overwhelmingly white. Of Michigan undergraduates with alumni parents, less than 3% are Hispanic and 4% black, compared with rates of 5% and 8%, respectively, in the overall enrollment, say court documents filed by minority students. The university says it can't verify the legacy percentages.
"What does legacy preference do to advance fairness and merit?" asks Theodore M. Shaw, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., who represents 17 minority high-school students granted defendant status in the affirmative-action suit against the university. "Why is it more defensible than an attempt to include people from minority groups that have been excluded in the past and are still under-represented?"
The reply from the white students' lawyer, Michael Rosman: "Because some small percentage of white students are getting legacy preference, that doesn't mean we should disadvantage all whites" by allowing racial preferences. Mr. Rosman is general counsel of the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington nonprofit that represents the two white students whom Michigan rejected in 1997.
One of those students, Patrick Hamacher, was turned down by Michigan despite having a legacy preference. An earlier version of Michigan's legacy preference had boosted his 2.9 high-school grade-point average to 3 for purposes of considering him. The suit that he and co-plaintiff Jennifer Gratz filed asks for the elimination of race as a factor in admissions at the university. But Mr. Hamacher says he actually doesn't think Michigan should consider either race or parentage in its admissions. He is now a graduate of another university, Michigan State.
The University of Michigan's law school -- the defendant in the other affirmative-action case before the Supreme Court -- doesn't use the point system but does give an edge to children of out-of-state alumni. It treats them as in-state applicants, who receive extra consideration. Last May, a federal appeals court upheld the law school's affirmative-action policy, 5 to 4. But since other federal appellate courts have gone the other way, all eyes are on the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the Michigan cases in the spring.
Some Democrats are trying to reposition affirmative action as a populist cause under siege from an old-boy network of Republicans -- notably President Bush, who was a third-generation legacy student at Yale. Sen. Edwards said in a November speech that "the legacy preference rewards students who had the most advantages to begin with. It is a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy."
In both the House and Senate education committees, an attack on legacy preference is expected this year from the panels' ranking Democrats, Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Mr. Kennedy was a legacy student at Harvard.
Some bipartisan support is likely. Sen. Trent Lott supported "aggressive" minority recruiting to "balance" legacy admissions, while speaking to Black Entertainment Television last month as he sought to defuse criticism of his remarks about Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential run.
In fact, one of the first politicians to assail the legacy preference was a Republican, Bob Dole. In 1990, when Mr. Dole was Senate Minority Leader, he called legacy preference an "unfair advantage" for children of "wealthy contributors" and urged the federal Office for Civil Rights to examine whether it was legal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The office concluded the preference was legal. It also found that although the preference contributed to a gap in the rate at which white and Asian applicants to Harvard were accepted, Harvard had "legitimate institutional goals" for favoring alumni children.
At Harvard today, Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons says he personally reads all applications from children of alumni, which numbered 727 last year. He says the average SAT score of legacies admitted is just two points below the school's overall average, and that legacy status is basically used as a tie-breaker between comparable candidates.
Harvard's legacy students are becoming more diverse, reflecting the surge in minority enrollment in the 1970s. Still, only 7.6% of legacy applicants accepted last year were black, Hispanic or native American, compared with 17.8% of all successful applicants.
Asked how he defends a policy so little rooted in merit, Mr. Fitzsimmons says that the school's alumni "volunteer an immense amount of their free time in recruiting students, raising money for their financial aid, taking part in Harvard Club activities at the local level, and in general promoting the college." He adds, "They often bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate ... and makes Harvard a happier place." Therefore, he says, "when their sons and daughters apply, we review their applications with great care and will give a 'tip' in the admissions process to them."
John Sedgwick, the father of Harvard freshman Sara Sedgwick, argues that legacy preference helps keep the past alive. The family's Harvard ties go back to Ms. Sedgwick's great-great-grandfather, Henry Dwight Sedgwick II, who graduated in 1843. Her grandfather played on Harvard's undefeated, Rose-Bowl-winning 1919 football team.
"One of the salient characteristics of a college like Harvard is its history," says Mr. Sedgwick, a novelist. "Legacy students are a visible representation of that history and make it real for the students who are attending."
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