May 25, 2003
The Supreme Court will soon rule in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. However the court decides, the debate over race-based admissions is sure to intensify. And so will the discussion of other kinds of college preferences, particularly the boost many schools give to the children (and grandchildren) of alumni, or "legacies."
The argument against legacy preferences is that they amount to affirmative action for whites, and that if it is unfair to give an applicant a leg up because of race, it is no less unfair to do so because of lineage. Especially when, as Senator John Edwards of North Carolina puts it, "legacy admissions give more to kids who already have more."
I've no personal ax to grind here. Like Edwards, I was the first in my family to attend college and had no alumni connections to grease my way to a prestigious institution. I think legacy preferences tend to reinforce class privilege, and would lose no sleep if they were abolished. (At the state universities of California and Georgia, they already have been).
But I also think they are defensible in ways that racial preferences are not.
For one thing, legacy admissions foster loyalty and enthusiasm for a school, and deepen the desire of alumni and their families to see the school prosper. In a nation with more than 3,500 colleges to choose from, a passion for one particular institution, sustained and transmitted across generations, is an asset a school might well wish to cultivate.
Especially when that passion expresses itself financially. Universities depend on the generosity of alumni; without the billions they donate to their alma maters every year, tuition and fees would skyrocket and financial aid would dwindle. The president of Middlebury College told The New York Times in February that a year at his elite Vermont college would cost $60,000, not $36,000, if it weren't for the gifts of alumni. By stimulating their philanthropy, legacy preferences arguably make higher education more widely available for everyone.
All the same, legacy preferences are slowly disappearing. At Middlebury, legacies were 12 percent of the entering class in 1965; they make up just 5 percent of current freshmen. William F. Buckley writes that at Yale, his alma mater, 29 percent of the 1940 entering class were the children of alumni; in 1971, 14 percent were. The vast majority of legacies are white, but that too is changing. It is only in the past generation that significant numbers of minorities have been graduating from US colleges. But with each passing year, more and more of their children will be applying to college -- as legacies.
George W. Bush's pedigree helped get him into Yale in 1964 despite a comparatively mediocre high school record. It isn't clear that it would do so today.
Competition is shrinking the advantage that legacy status confers. According to William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions, the average SAT score of legacies admitted is just two points lower than the schoolwide average. At Middlebury, legacy freshmen scored 33 points higher than their average classmate. Similarly, legacies entering the University of Virginia generally have better grades than the school's in-state students.
By contrast, racial preferences give black and Hispanic applicants a huge advantage over whites and Asians with comparable records. On the University of Michigan's 150-point scale, being a legacy earns four points. Being black earns 20. At elite schools like Michigan and the Ivies, racial preferences are used to surmount not a 2-point deficit in SAT scores, but a deficit of 150 to 200 points. For selective colleges and universities, race is not a modest "plus factor." It is the decisive factor. In too many cases, race determines who gets in -- and who doesn't.
Legacies are not the issue before the Supreme Court, but the justices are not blind to the comparison many have made. If one applicant is rejected because he isn't a minority and another is rejected because he isn't a legacy, Justice Stephen Breyer asked during oral arguments on April 1, "what is the difference?"
Answered the lawyer for the students challenging Michigan's racial preferences: "The difference is the Equal Protection Clause, Your Honor."
And that's the crux of it. The Constitution's 14th Amendment, written in the wake of a terrible civil war, forbids the states -- and thus state-run universities like Michigan -- from discriminating on the basis of race, except where the discrimination is narrowly tailored to serve a "compelling" state interest. Universities are not constitutionally barred from making admission decisions on the basis of wealth or ancestry or athletic ability -- or grades and SAT scores, for that matter. Legacy preferences may be dubious or archaic. But they aren't racial.
Judging people by the color of their skin is a fundamental wrong -- there is no more searing lesson in American history. The Constitution says so. Let us hope the Supreme Court will, too.