Legacy Admissions: The Unfairest of Them All

This time last year, I, like many other Asian-American college applicants, faced the following dilemma: Check ‘Asian’ on the racial background section, or leave the box blank? This dilemma was motivated by my fear and distrust of affirmative action policies, which at the time I believed would unfairly discriminate against me due to my Asian heritage. 

That same fear is the focal point of a recent lawsuit against Harvard by the Students for Fair Admissions, a newly formed nonprofit organization. The suit argues that Harvard’s race-based affirmative action policies unfairly discriminate against Asian-Americans and violate Title VI of  the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs that receive federal funding. A similar lawsuit was also launched by the same nonprofit against the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a white plaintiff.  

Though Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard represents the first major lawsuit with an Asian-American plaintiff in recent years, anti-affirmative action cases are far from new. From Regents v. Bakke (1978) to Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) to Fisher v. Texas (2013), white plaintiffs have sought, unsuccessfully, to challenge affirmative action, arguing that such policies are unconstitutional and antithetical to the true purpose of higher education.  

But this outrage toward such ‘unmeritocratic’ policies would be better directed toward the greatest ‘affirmative action’ program in the history of higher education: the preference toward legacy applicants.  

According to Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, legacy preferences, rather than acting as the ‘tiebreaker’ that they’re often purported to be in holistic admissions, provide legacy applicants with an advantage roughly equal to a 160-point score increase on the math and verbal sections of the SAT.  

Additionally, Harvard researcher Michael Hurwitz found in 2011 that Harvard legacy applicants had a nearly 23 percent admissions advantage when compared to similarly qualified non-legacy applicants. In particular, individuals who are considered ‘primary legacies’ (those with a parent who is an alum) had a 45 percent advantage while ‘secondary legacies’ (those with a sibling, aunt, uncle or grandparent who is an alum) had nearly a 14 percent advantage.  

These policies disproportionately benefit wealthy white students, with a vast majority of legacy applicants being from the top 10 percent income percentile. It’s no wonder why Kahlenberg calls it “affirmative action for the rich.”

While affirmative action policies for racial minorities admittedly operate in similar ways, by some estimates conferring the equivalent of a 230-point SAT advantage for African-American applicants and 185 for Latinos, they are employed for entirely different and far more legitimate reasons.  

As cited in several Supreme Court decisions and by most colleges—including all the 5Cs—affirmative action policies are necessary to enhance educational excellence. Pomona’s own 2005 Trustee Statement on Diversity says, “[Diversity] is an educational benefit that serves our entire academic community and helps prepare all of our students to develop informed, constructive, leadership roles in the world … therefore we are committing ourselves to work diligently and continually toward … recruiting faculty, staff, and students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”

In contrast, legacy preferences significantly reduce racial diversity by disproportionately benefitting white applicants. At Harvard, for example, over 92 percent of legacy admits in 2002 were white.

But, far more importantly, affirmative action seeks to counteract centuries of discrimination against African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, groups that have faced, among other barriers, systematic exclusion from higher education. Legacy preferences, on the other hand, are inherently discriminatory. Back in the early 20th century, such policies were devised as an indirect means to exclude Jewish applicants from entering elite institutions, as Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel writes in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

In short, while affirmative action seeks to dismantle unfair hierarchies, legacy preferences compound them.

Colleges have defended legacy preference as being a financial necessity, cited as a means to retain high alumni contribution rates. Nonetheless, as a 2007 study of the nation’s 100 elite universities found, there is no evidence that legacy preferences are linked to higher alumni generosity. The study also concluded that alumni of legacy-granting colleges donate only $15 more per year on average, when controlled for socioeconomic differences.

Almost a year after my decision, I’m proud that I chose to mark ‘Asian’ on my college application. I’m proud to be at Pomona, a place that, on paper, is “committed to … recruiting faculty, staff, and students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups that have experienced prejudice and disadvantage.” A place where I’ve since learned that an acceptance letter alone does not erase past nor prevent future discrimination, but merely attempts to mitigate its effects.

And yet more can be done to ensure that education at the 5Cs—in the words of Pomona’s fourth president, James A. Blaisdell—remains open to all of those who are “eager, thoughtful and reverent,” regardless of racial or socioeconomic disadvantages. If the 5Cs truly want to uphold diversity in their student population and stand as institutions that recognize—to reference the optional general education component at Pomona—the “Dynamics and Differences of Power,” they should direct their efforts not only to upholding affirmative action policies but to eliminating legacy preferences once and for all. 

Lauren Bollinger PO ’18 is from the Bay Area and plans on majoring in either sociology or English.

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