Legacy Admissions – A response to Richard Kahlenberg

The Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg has recently published a pair of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education to promote his new book on legacy admissions at American colleges and universities. Dr. Kahlenberg makes no secret of his beliefs (the book’s title is Affirmative Action for the Rich), and while numbers make an occasional appearance in the articles, impartial social science does not.

Whether or not his prejudices should cast doubt on his credibility is a question we can leave aside, since his articles contain enough poor science to disabuse us of any sympathy we might have for his views. For a taste of Kahlenberg’s inclinations, here are the concluding sentences of his first article:

In a fundamental sense, this nation’s first two great wars—the Revolution and the Civil War—were fought to defeat different forms of aristocracy. That this remnant of ancestry-based discrimination still survives—in American higher education, of all places—is truly breathtaking.

If the professor genuinely believes that legacy admissions disgrace the spirit of our forefathers, one can only imagine what he must think about expensive private high schools and family businesses—institutions that are much more efficient than selective colleges at keeping wealth in the family, evidently an un-American activity. Perhaps he would prefer mandatory public education and a one-hundred-percent estate tax? And, for good measure, throw in a federal prohibition against hiring relatives.

For the most part, Kahlenberg dismisses each of the “10 Myths” with misdirections. He cherry-picks statistics from specific colleges, then compares the colleges as apples to oranges. He makes a habit of assuming that correlation implies causation. Caltech, which does not give legacy preference, receives nearly as much financial support from alumni as MIT, which does support legacy preference; thus he ostensibly proves that legacy admissions have no effect on alumni giving. As if the logical fallacy weren’t enough, it turns out that MIT legacy “preference” in fact consists only of one extra review for rejected applications, very rarely changing the outcome of the process.

Even when Kahlenberg draws on serious academic research concerning legacies, he is very selective about which data he reports. To take one example at random, he refers (without citing) to research by Thomas Epenshade of Princeton which suggests that legacy status boosts an applicant’s chance for admission by the equivalent of 160 points on the SAT. (Incidentally, this advantage is less than that typically received by blacks, hispanics, and recruited athletes.) However, another study by Epenshade (“The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities,” Social Science Quarterly, June 2005) concludes that existing legacy admissions policies “only mildly displace members of minority groups”—though one of the great “injustices” Kahlenberg laments is precisely this displacement. “Myth 9,” in fact, is the idea that legacy admissions are only mildly harmful to non-legacy students’ admissions chances. Instead of proving that the idea is a myth, he diverts the reader by rattling off a paragraph of statistics about how wealthy and important selective colleges are.

It is especially hard take seriously what Kahlenberg has to say about the legality of legacy admissions. Referring to an obscure constitutional detail about Titles of Nobility, he presents a case made by Carlton Larson (though Kahlenberg fails to disclose that he himself edited the paper) that legacy admissions are “precisely the type of hereditary privilege that the Revolutionary generation sought to destroy forever.” I may be no lawyer, but “Court Rules That Legacy Status Is Title of Nobility” sounds more like a bad headline from The Onion than a report any admissions officer should be worried about. Larson, as Kahlenberg puts it, “makes a compelling case that this prohibition should not be interpreted narrowly as simply prohibiting the naming of individuals as dukes or earls, but more broadly, to prohibit “government-sponsored hereditary privileges.'” But even if it meets legal muster, this argument only applies to public universities, many of which have already eliminated legacy admissions preference. Kahlenberg also claims that the 14th amendment should prohibit the practice—referring to a constitutional argument grounded in the principle of birthright citizenship that children should be judged only on their own merits—but if a court were to take this argument seriously, it would also have to prohibit all nepotism in hiring practices. No more working in dad’s hardware store.

I agree with many of Kahlenberg’s sentiments. Until the 1960s, my own alma matter admitted all legacy students, causing the legacy population to rise to a peak of nearly a quarter of the class. Some of these students certainly did not earn or deserve their coveted spots. But these days it is hard to say whether any student really deserves her place in the freshman class. When the most selective universities confess that they can only admit a small fraction of the students they believe to be equally well qualified for admission, speak of an educational meritocracy. Would Kahlenberg be able to provide a list of selection criteria he thinks are best for any given institution? Many colleges use financial need as an admission criterion; is family income more meritocratic than family educational background?

Like Kahlenberg, I would prefer more merit-based admissions policies. But his insinuation seems to be that elite colleges and universities which maintain legacy policies do so in bad faith, or at least with ethical indifference coupled with inferior intelligence. In reality, the process of choosing among thousands of impressive applicants is not only greatly subjective but demands an extraordinarily complex balance of values. Perhaps one of those values, at least at some institutions, ought to be loyalty to the members of the community of learning. Every college should carefully deliberate legacy status just as it evaluates the dozens of other evaluative attributes. There is no universal ethic, and Kahlenberg’s pretensions to know the right answer for every school are a dangerous reduction of morality to ideology.

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2 Responses to Legacy Admissions – A response to Richard Kahlenberg

  1. April says:

    Hard to take your rebuttal seriously when you open it with a complete non sequitur. What do private high schools and family businesses have to do with college admission? Even if they did, it’s not like either claim to admit students or welcome owners solely based on credentials in an application. Clearly the ability to pay is a factor in the former and heritage/legacy is the factor in the latter. (Also, the majority of family business owners are far from wealthy, and few family businesses survive from generation to generation.) Universities, on the other hand, purport to admit students based on merit.

    Also, you selectively omit evidence and commit logical errors yourself. I’ll highlight two cases. 1) There is no evidence that legacy admissions affect the rate of alumni giving, and Kahlenberg pointed out several examples of colleges/universities without legacy admissions that outpace similarly sized institutions with legacy admissions in alumni giving (not just Caltech and MIT). You, however, choose to harp on one piece of his argument instead of the whole. 2) If the argument on the legality of legacy admissions would only apply to public universities, how on earth would it prevent a kid from working in his dad’s hardware store? Next time, try actual logic instead of snark.

    • Benjamin Miller says:

      April, thank you for your response. At the risk of losing the forest for the trees, I’ll respond briefly to your challenges. First of all, I agree with you (and my piece does not suggest otherwise) that it would be objectionable for a university to claim a meritocratic admissions program while covertly assisting legacy applicants. If you know of examples of outright deception, you undoubtedly have grounds for a devastating public relations attack and, potentially, legal action. I am not aware of any such cases–in fact, to my knowledge, all universities (public and private) disclose whether or not they privilege legacies. I employ the comparison to private high schools and businesses to illustrate the extremity of Kahlenberg’s rhetoric, which seems more comfortable with sweeping ideological claims than with nuanced argument. As an aside, I caution not to conflate questions of meritocracy with questions of wealth. The non-meritocratic process of hiring for a family business, if it is unjust, is not so because it entails the transfer of great wealth, but because it does not properly reflect the criteria that we believe ought to be reflected.

      Now for the two logical errors you suggest: (1) By no means do I propose a statistical argument for or against the position Kahlenberg advances; I am not qualified to do so. But neither is Kahlenberg, judging from the evidence he cites. The mere fact that certain universities with legacy admissions policies receive fewer alumni donations than certain universities without these policies (and this does seem to be the extent of the statistical case Kahlenberg advances) signifies absolutely nothing about the efficacy of those policies. Alumni giving depends on so many factors that attributing it solely to a legacy admissions policy is a real logical fallacy (which we know is real because it has a fancy Latin name: quid hoc ergo propter hoc). In reality, there is solid evidence that alumni donations plummet after a son or daughter is denied admission to the alma mater.

      And (2): As you will find if you re-read the relevant paragraph, I actually mention two distinct legal arguments Kahlenberg raises. The first, based on court precedent, would apply only to public universities. The second, based on the 14th amendment, would not be so restricted.

      If you have in mind further instances where you feel I have erred–or where we have ideological differences–I would very much like to respond to your concerns. At a minimum I recognize that this piece is short and far from comprehensive, even restricting ourselves to Kahlenberg’s points from these two articles, and there is much more to be said.

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