Elitism, Injustice, and Inequality: Colleges and Legacy Admission Policies
Any college applicant has come across a dreaded question present on every university’s application: “Do you have any family members that are alumni of this university?”
The question’s mere existence immediately warrants concern. What significance does the work and background of my family have over my own candidacy for this institution? Why are students who happen to have hit the lottery as a child of a graduate of a prestigious university given priority over students without the same social network? These questions demand answers.
And yet, the institutions that maintain such policies continue to practice them despite any ethical examination of such policies. Colleges across the globe have failed to adequately respond to the objections against such policies that are rooted in exclusion, breed elitism, and are incredibly unjust. They should be terminated.
Rooted in Exclusion
Legacy admission policies are rooted in exclusion. This is plainly evident off of a definitional analysis of “exclusion,” which can be understood as denying someone access to a certain group membership, resource, or opportunity. Legacy admission policies are implemented specifically for this purpose, as a mechanism to differentiate individuals during the admission process.
However, whereas other mechanisms that determine admission are based on individual achievements, quantitative scores, and other metrics based on the individual themselves, legacy admissions do nothing of this sort. The only thing that legacy policies sort for are the accomplishments of one’s parents and family members. This excludes many individuals who have worked extremely hard to develop themselves for prestigious schools and subsequently receive letters of rejection because other applicants had a mom, dad or grandparent that attended the school over two decades ago.
Similarly, these policies protect socioeconomic and racial elitism because many individuals with ancestry tied to oppression are less likely to possess the same powerful social networks as wealthy white families. The New York Times recently reported that 5 out of the 8 Ivy League schools have more students coming from the top 1 percent of wealth than from the bottom 60 percent.
This statistic succinctly demonstrates the exclusion of such policies and will serve as a transition into my second argument that these policies breed elitism.
The elitism currently existing in the education system is difficult not to notice. Jonathan Kozol’s seminal work Savage Inequalities points out many of the travesties of the public education system, which is still segregated for all intents and purposes, despite not being labeled by the government as such.
Kozol describes how schools within walking distance of each other can be perceived as worlds apart. In one such example, a school that has a student population of mostly colored individuals faces severe funding deficits, which leads to classrooms without teachers, a lack of books and supplies, and even sewage flooding the school’s halls.
Meanwhile, a school nearby that consists of mostly white individuals has teachers in every classroom, enough supplies for every student, and halls filled with information about programs and opportunities rather than with what comes out of the sewage.
The inequality of the education system does not stop after high school. Colleges suffer similar symptoms. Legacy admission programs contribute to this because they breed elitism. The only individuals that have ever shown support for legacy programs are those who benefit from it: the elite and college boards.
The elite benefit because they are able to maintain the success and therefore maintain the social and economic power that they possess as a result of historical injustice.
College boards benefit because a great deal of “funding” can be earned in exchange for maintaining a relationship with wealthy and successful families. I use the word “funding” here with caution; what I am really describing is bribery.
A recent study found that Harvard undergraduates come from families that earn $168,000 on average annually. In contrast, the average annual income for all other families in the U.S. is a measly $55,000. Notice the massive discrepancy. Undergraduate students from Harvard are coming from families that make more than three times what the average family earns. The elitism is flagrant.
Finally, legacy admission policies are highly unjust. Legacy policies can be essentially understood as “affirmative action for white people.” This is blatantly clear from both analytic and anecdotal evidence.
For one, many schools such as Princeton and Yale contain separate admission pools for children of alumni versus others. This is literally holding people to a different standard based solely on their genetic relations to others. Does this sound like racism? I would say so.
One Princeton board member claimed that legacy students are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Richard Kahlenberg, a Harvard graduate and writer for the Century Foundation, estimates that there are 23 times as many rich as poor students at Harvard and said that the diversity is extremely lacking.
This is not only the case at Harvard. According to one study, white students make up an absurd 46 percent of the Ivy League population. Harvard University did not even want to share such data. A recent lawsuit in which the school was accused of racial discrimination led to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs demanding that the school release its admissions data to the public. The findings were shocking. To receive a letter of admission, Asian-American males from rural states need to score 1370 points on the PSAT qualifying test. White males, however, only need a score of 1310. Other races faced even larger gaps.
Harvard is still waiting to hear a verdict, but many believe that the university will be found guilty of racial profiling. What this case shows is simply what most people with any awareness about how American society works already knew: the system favors white individuals based on their whiteness alone and marginalizes non-white individuals based on their non-whiteness alone.
Whether or not it does so under the cleverly euphemistic label of a “legacy policy” is besides the point. The injustice still proceeds on with all of its negative consequences.
Legacy Policies Must be Terminated
Legacy policies are rooted in exclusion, breed elitism, and maintain social injustice; these policies must be terminated.
Giving preferential treatment to a student based on the fortune of being born into a powerful family is unjust. Conversely, it is highly unethical to reject a student who has worked as hard (if not harder) to develop a resume similar to that of a wealthy white student simply because there is another student related to alumni, despite their lesser quality application and an easier route to success through access to opportunity and resources.
These legacy admission policies work to maintain a very specific societal ordering, in which wealth and whiteness are the dominant attributes of those with power, whereas poverty and non-whiteness are discriminated against.
To provide a more level playing field in an already racially segregated society, the only logical step is to outright ban legacy admission policies.
DISCLAIMER! The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The College Post.