With college applications at an all-time high and acceptance rates at elite American universities plunging, the gauntlet of college admissions has become all the more treacherous. 

But what if the extra hours of test prep, perfected essays and community service projects count less than anticipated because many of those prized acceptance letters are already signed, sealed and spoken for based on criteria unrelated to achievement or diversity?

While affirmative action has gone through the legislative wringer—subjected to significant public scrutiny and barely surviving a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003—the Century Foundation’s new book Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions examines this less publicized but ethically precarious admissions booster. 

The book is a collection of essays and articles by scholars, journalists and education experts arguing that much of what colleges have said over the years about alumni admissions preferences isn’t true. A good summary can be found on Inside Higher Ed.

At a luncheon forum at the National Press Club in DC on September 22, the book’s editor Richard D. Kahlenberg and several contributing writers discussed the practice of legacy preferences in college admissions—which three-quarters of elite institutions employ—and which, Kahlenberg noted, were first instituted in the early part of the twentieth century to bar immigrants and Jews from top-tier universities.

Panelists cited studies conducted by Princeton’s Thomas Espenshade, showing that legacy status adds the equivalent of 160 SAT points (on the old 1600 point SAT scale) to a candidate’s test score.

Arguments for legacy preference often include assertions that the policy benefits the school’s history of tradition and that it increases alumni giving. But panelist Chad Coffman’s joint research analyzing the relationship between donations and legacy preferences in admissions, controlling for alumni wealth, suggests “no evidence that legacy-preference policies themselves exert an influence on giving behavior.”  (A recent article by Kahlenberg for the Chronicle of Higher Education debunks ten popular myths about legacy preference.)
In a country founded on the notion that “all men are created equal,” regardless of parentage, said attorney and contributor Steve Shadowen, legacy preference practices are fundamentally un-American. Both Cambridge and Oxford universities have dropped the policy, he said. But what will take to end the practice here in the US and how bad is legacy preferencing anyway?
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University, was the lone defender of the practice at the forum, stating in his opening remarks that the criticism “is all nonsense."  “If [legacies] don’t get into Harvard, they’ll go to Yale,” Trachtenberg said.  “What we’re doing here is rhetorical.” Trachtenberg also cited a recent Wall Street Journal article which indicates that top corporate recruiters have turned a keen eye to big state schools such as Penn State, Texas A&M and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne over Ivies anyway.

Recruiters say graduates of top public universities are often among the most prepared and well-rounded academically, and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures and over time have the best track record in their firms.
Regardless of corporate hiring patterns however, legacy preferences seems to clearly violate basic notions of fairness and equity. The bottom line, as Kahlenberg, an advocate for class-based as opposed to race-based affirmative action, observes, is that "with a legacy preference, we are advantaging the already advantaged."