Legacy Admissions Hurt Middle-Class Students

Stanford, Yale, Harvard and other universities offer tuition breaks but don't fix admissions process

Stanford University recently joined elite East Coast schools such as MIT, Harvard and Yale, in promising a virtually free education to families who earn less than $100,000 a year. But if Stanford is genuinely interested in expanding the economic diversity of the student body, it needn’t look for models so far away. There is a better one closer to home: The California Institute of Technology or Caltech. And it shows that Stanford ought to reform not its financial aid – but its admissions – policies.

It is true that tuition fees these days are obscenely high. But they are not the biggest barrier to an elite education for academically gifted kids from working-class families. The bigger obstacle is that they can’t get in.

Comprehensive data on the admission practices of top universities are exceedingly hard to come by given that most of the schools are private and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless, the research that exists shows that, thanks to special preferences for children of alumni, elite universities systematically favor rich, white kids over more talented, working-class kids, especially from first-generation immigrant families.

Brown Alumni Magazine reported that legacy applicants are twice as likely as regular applicants to gain admission to Brown University, an Ivy League school. An investigation by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights into Harvard University’s admission practices in 1990 reported an identical finding. Nor is there any reason to believe that things have changed at these universities, given that neither has made any move to abandon legacy preferences – although both have announced more generous financial aid. Meanwhile, a 1999 study of the University of Virginia – widely regarded as a public “Ivy” – found that legacy students were 4.3 times more likely to get in over non-legacies with identical academic credentials.

But the most compelling research showing just how lucky kids born to elite-educated parents are was published in 2005 by Princeton University’s Tom Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung. Their analysis of a dozen selected colleges (that they can’t identify due to a confidentiality agreement) revealed that on a 1,600-point SAT scale, being the child of an alumnus gives the equivalent of 160-point boost to an applicant. By contrast, having nonlegacy Asian American parents represents a 50 SAT-point disadvantage. In other words, these kids must score 210 points over rich, white legacy offspring to have a shot at admission.

Universities defend legacy preferences on grounds that they help them raise funds from alumni, which they then use to subsidize poor kids. If this were true, universities most flush with alumni money would also be the most economically diverse. The reverse, actually, is the case. Indeed, according to a 2006 survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard, whose $36 billion endowment is the biggest in the country, ranks a dismal 55th out of the top 59 wealthiest private schools on economic diversity. Yale, which at $22 billion sits on the second-biggest endowment, ranks 46th. And Stanford is 24th even though its $17 billion endowment is the third largest.

The reason why economic aid does not equal economic diversity on campus is not hard to understand: Admissions are a zero-sum game in which students vie for a finite number of seats. So every seat that a less-talented legacy gets is one less spot at Stanford available to a talented poor kid. The crucial determinant of economic diversity on campus is not how much largesse legacies expend on poor kids – but how many seats they take away from them.

If there is any doubt about this, consider Caltech in Southern California. Its admission standards are the toughest among elite colleges. Its endowment is a “mere” $2.38 billion – yet it ranks an impressive 13th on economic diversity. Its financial aid package is no more generous than that of Stanford or other elite schools. So what’s the difference? It applies the same standards to everyone, refusing to give legacies a leg up.

Stanford is a private school and should be free to set whatever admission standards it deems fit. But if it is serious about maintaining its status among elite colleges while increasing diversity and drawing from the widest possible talent pool, the first thing it ought to do is scrap legacy preferences. Aid is nice – but by itself it won’t deliver on Stanford’s much-ballyhooed commitment to academic standards or social justice.