The Arizona Desert Lamp

Are legacy admissions unconstitutional?

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 30 November 2008

An article from Inside Higher Ed discusses two law articles that make the legal case against legacy admissions. The first article focuses on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, targeted against the former slave-owner aristocracy of the South, while the second uses the nobility clause of the constitution:

Because his paper focuses on titles of nobility — banned by the Constitution for use by federal or state governments — his argument applies only to public colleges and universities. Lawson argues that the nobility clauses, largely understood to ban the awarding of titles like “duke” or “earl,” actually ban any hereditary privilege.

I think this overstates the case, and in the process makes the Constitution far too flexible. This clause is literally talking about titles of nobility, not a (somewhat) natural aristocracy. Were the House of Clinton entitled to twelve admissions at Harvard, it’d be worthy of protest. Yet a form of aristocracy is natural, and will occur in all but the most dystopic societies. Even the Soviet Union, ostensibly the great socialist hope, quickly developed a ruling class. The key is to avoid a codification of these interests, which makes the aristocracy more artificial than natural.

The second article is focused largely on public universities, which use legacy admissions to a far lower extent than the private Ivies and other elite, private institutions. For instance, I don’t think that legacy plays anything but a negligible role in determining who gets in to the UA or ASU.

Yet I’m optimistic that it the long term, it doesn’t really matter. As elite universities rely too heavily on legacy admissions, more and more talented kids from non-entrenched families are left out. Yet these kids are often the most striving and hard-working (given their environment), and many will succeed even at a state school. As this occurs more and more often, and the alumni of less prestigious schools become more prominent, these schools gain prestige, and become less of a second or third best option. What we’ve seen in the past few years is the rise of schools which weren’t considered. Remember, there was once a time when the Ivies were the only option, and schools like the University of Chicago were backwater honor high schools with 20 students. As time has progressed, overall quality has gone up.

The fairness issue is a problem, and akin to the affirmative action issue — you have no control over the family you’re born into, nor over the amount of melanin that you’re born with. Yet I’m getting increasingly pessimistic over the fact that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether or not a school is discriminating, be it on the basis of race or family. Outside of a flagrantly discriminatory policy, like the previous point system at the University of Michigan, the admissions process is very opaque, with a litany of factors at play. Wide-spread policies of discrimination could occur without anyone knowing, even with the passage of the Ward Connerly sponsored bills or bans on legacy admissions.

The best way to solve this problem is to start cutting state and federal funding to schools that exercise such discriminating preferences. As far as I know, Hillsdale College in Michigan is the only non-profit school that does not take federal or state dollars. The fact that Harvard, with a $36.9 billion endowment, receives any government funding is fairly repugnant.

The Reason Foundation was on this case many months ago, and pointed out an interesting twist to the problem:

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.

The big difference here is between technical schools and non-technical schools. For a technical institute, you have to know your math and science — even if your dad is Bill Gates. With liberal arts studies, however, the incoming knowledge is less quantifiable — thus an ability to use “outside factors” to a far greater degree.

With this in mind, I’m almost left wondering whether there isn’t a case to be made for legacies. Since the sons and daughters of famous alumni are bound to be major players wherever they end up, it’s best to ensure that they are as informed as possible when they step into these positions. The real responsibility ultimately lies with the parents of these potential legacies, as to whether they use their influence to coddle their children, or force them to earn their admission to Harvard.

Incidentally, the institution which offers the best chances at advancement on merit, with virtually no undue legacy corruption, is the military. There are downsides, though.


3 Responses

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  1. HFSNT said, on 30 November 2008 at 9:04 pm

    What shouldn’t we do to ensure that our budding young aristocrats have the capabilities to rule over us and perpetuate the system to their advantage over the rest? Surely, we should not even think of trying to restrain this phenomenon to the greatest extent possible; surely, as the woes of our current time suggest, the aristocracy of the future can be made just as competent as the aristocracy of today – and we should try for -that-, good sir!; surely, after all, we owe a certain fealty to them for their benevolence – a benevolence toward the masses undoubtedly not even necessary to cultivate. Not cultivated indeed, but inborn by the nobility of their genetics! Yes, a natural aristocracy indeed!

  2. Evan Lisull said, on 30 November 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Ha ha, that is a fair and well-played critique. That ‘case’ that I made is half-hearted and unwilling, and viscerally I don’t think that anything good will come of it.

    A more troubling question, though, remains: Is there ANY way to stop this? Given the opaque nature of the admissions process, it’s essentially impossible to prove that ‘undue influence’ has been exercised. After all, virtually all legacies have been coddled enough along the way to have an acceptable, if not otherwise exemplary, resume.

    Then there’s the case of a legacy that actually has earned his or her way to an elite school — how would methods to prevent legacy abuse avoid punishing these students? Or should these students be punished, in order to make the process ‘fairer’?

  3. Laura Donovan said, on 30 November 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Legacy isn’t really taken into consideration at public schools. For instance, my best friend didn’t get into the University of Michigan even though her -entire- family went there. Private schools are different, but I do think you need to earn your acceptance in some way. My sister did very poorly in high school and didn’t get into USC, where our dad went. It’s not like we donated a bunch of money, and that’s important to really prestigious and expensive private colleges.

    Colleges have gotten so competitive that I think legacies have lost their edge anyway, even at some private schools. Above all, admission should not just be given to a student for having family ties, but students shouldn’t be punished for being legacies, either.

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