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Commentary

Should Legacy Admissions Be Allowed? A Debate



Let’s have a debate on paper about a contentious topic: the legitimacy of legacy admissions, showing preference for applicants who have relatives who have attended the college or university in question.

Affirmative

Private universities are just that—private. The right of association—or non-association— is a fundamental American right. Fraternities and sororities select some as members, rejecting others. So do private clubs. Schools like Harvard are essentially academic private clubs. Moreover, they are richly supported by devoted alumni, both financially and in other ways, giving everything from investment advice to university administrations to internships and jobs to students and recent graduates. It is not only permissible but highly appropriate for a private school to show some favoritism to the loved ones of those persons who have deeply supported the institution over the years, making it the high quality university it is today. Alumni are part of a big university family, and naturally humans support and favor those in their family, those who have shown them love and support over the years. Moreover, legacy admissions account for 20% or less of those matriculating at most schools, and is actually less prevalent than, say, preferential admissions granted to students on other non-academic criteria, such as race or athletic talent.

Negative

The very notion of a “private” university is a farce. The Ivy League, for example, gets more government support per student than most so-called state universities. It gets enormous tax benefits that provide extraordinary resources to those privileged to attend. Our nation’s future leaders come disproportionately from these wealthy schools. The notion that public monies should be used to subsidize preferential treatment to less qualified students, most of whom come from wealthy white families, is abhorrent to the American belief that anyone, regardless of wealth, race, gender or other group attribute, can with hard work rise to the top in our society. As our society becomes more unequal in so many ways, the private universities today are creating a new form of academic aristocracy, one that widens the divisions between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots. Legacy admissions epitomizes this and should be outlawed except at the handful of schools like Hillsdale College that are truly “private,” accepting absolutely no federal or state government financial support. Interestingly, few if any state universities permit legacy admissions: why should the so-called private schools be any different?

Rejoinder: Affirmative

College admissions decisions are by necessity an exercise in showing preference for one group of students over another. Schools like Harvard have thousands of highly qualified applicants rejected annually, students who will go to other highly reputable institutions. In making decisions, the schools already deliberately show preferences for some students over others on grounds unrelated to parental background. Bright kids are preferred over those with genetic attributes leading to lower cognitive skills, such as lower IQ scores. Students adept in ball throwing contests like football and basketball are favored over those lacking those skills. Many would argue that schools favor African-American or Hispanic students over Caucasian or Asian applicants—skin color seems to matter. Showing preference to someone because he or she has a parent who has supported a university in the past is just another form of discrimination, indeed one far less invidious and far more morally justified than favoring an individual on the basis of, say, skin coloration.

Rejoinder: Negative

The affirmative is using diversionary tactics, ignoring a fundamental reality. Students from the bottom quartile of the income distribution are severely underrepresented in American universities, especially the most selective ones that will disproportionately educate tomorrow’s business and political leaders. Everyone of the last five American presidents, for example, has at least one degree from an Ivy League school (Yale, Columbia or Penn). These schools and others like them provide a ticket for future economic success—and those tickets are handed out partly on the basis of family connections, not much different than the passage of power in the medieval nobility from one generation to another. It is un-American, and deprives our nation from some of the best and brightest among us being able to achieve their full potential. It is a negation of the American Dream where hard work and ingenuity are the main keys to success, not family name or inherited wealth.


Richard K. Vedder is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ohio University, and co-author (with Lowell Gallaway) of the award-winning Independent Institute book, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America.


From Richard K. Vedder
CAN TEACHERS OWN THEIR OWN SCHOOLS?: New Strategies for Educational Excellence
In Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?, Richard Vedder examines the economics, history, and politics of education and argues that public schools should be privatized. Privatized public schools would benefit from competition, market discipline, and the incentives essential to produce cost-effective, educational quality, and attract the additional funding and expertise needed to revolutionize school systems.







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