I disagree that a legacy preference (a college admissions criterion favoring children of alumni) necessarily constitutes elitism, as argued in the 30 September 2010 New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Elite Colleges, or Colleges for the Elite”.
High school graduates may attend the same college as their parents for a variety of benign reasons, none of which is considered by the article. For one thing, high schoolers know a lot more about where mom or dad went to college than they do about comparable institutions. Their parents’ college may be geographically close to home. Their parents’ friends may have talked up the place, as well. Thus, I predict children of alumni have a statistically higher-than-random chance of showing up in the applicant pool where mom or dad went to college. My prediction is derived from the fact that I went to the same college as my dad, and so did my daughter – for some of the reasons I mention.
Many non-discriminatory factors influence the admissions office side of the equation, as well. More often than not, children’s academic ability and interests are similar to those of their parents. In other words, if a parent attended a particular school, there is a good chance their son or daughter will qualify to go there as well. Across all admissions criteria — including grades, SAT scores, initiative, leadership ability, creativity, congeniality, and writing skill – I contend that parents and children will, on average, show similar competence and eligibility for admission.
Thus, if mom or dad graduated from a particular institution – whether it be Harvard or Penn State – their offspring will probably be more likely to apply than at other schools similarly situated, and will probably have what it takes to get in.
Before we condemn legacy preferences, we should conduct an impact study. I would like to compare grades and SAT scores of legacy admissions to the average for other entering freshmen. If legacy kids score the same or higher than their average classmate, then the college probably did the right thing admitting them – regardless of whether or not a parent was an alum. If legacy kids scored significantly worse than their peers, only then would it be appropriate to consider the possibility of a legacy preference. In that circumstance, the college would only have itself to blame; since data indicates alumni are no more likely to be generous towards their alma mater just because their parent went there.
In any event, whatever legacy-to-class-average statistics happen to reveal, college admissions involve far more influential criteria than where someone’s parent graduated.