The College Admissions Files: Legacy Status

Almost as soon as I woke up this morning, I stumbled upon a debate in the NY Times Blog about legacy admissions.  It happens that, at the moment, I am reading The Chosen by Jerome Karabel which gives a detailed history of admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (which as the book correctly points out, are largely imitated by other selective universities in the U.S.).  I find the topic of legacy admissions interesting, and so, I thought this would be a good time to start writing on college admissions; a feature that I hope will be recurring over the course of this blog.

Legacy admissions is a great issue for debate because it seems to run directly counter to the compelling, and widespread, narratives of America as the land where success is possible for anyone who works hard and is capable, and of college as the place to go to launch a successful life.  It is natural for citizens, especially students and parents, to conclude that if you work hard and are capable, you should be admitted to a top college, where you can duly launch into your successful life.  A logical extension is that those admitted to the best colleges should be those who have worked hard and are most capable.

Several members of the media have argued that the failure of this narrative during the current recession is one of the primary motivations behind the Occupy Wall Street movement (and they may be right).  This resonates with me because I have always cautioned the students and parents I have worked with from considering the college admissions process as the sort of game you win by talent.  Simply put – the best and the brightest (if such people exist) are not guaranteed admissions to the best college.  The converse is more empowering—if you are rejected from the college of your choice, it is not because you are not good enough or smart enough.

Accepting the role of luck and rejecting the idea of meritocracy (a word that this commenter rightly points out was coined satirically to describe how the elite ensure success for their progeny in a democracy) is important for the emotional and mental well being of students and parents participating in the college admissions process.  It is equally important to understand that where you get in matters less than how you work once there, and that even how you do in college (much less high school) does not predestine you to success or failure.  Members of Occupy are wrong to expect that their college education should guarantee them a good job, but they are probably right to protest the “meritocracy” narrative whose ubiquitous place in our society led to such expectation (and they are protesting many other things besides which are beyond the scope of this writing).

Legacy admissions is indeed a way for institutions to attract and secure money by implicitly promising access (and associated “success”) to future generations of current members of the club.  This may not seem fair, but it is true.  Perhaps it should end, but perhaps also diversity preferences, athletic scholarships, or admitting that really talented tuba player to help round out the marching band should end as well.  I am more concerned with students and families correctly conceiving of the process of college admissions and which parts of it are and are not under their control, than I am of changing these policies.

I will review The Chosen when I am finished reading it, but even from its preface, it makes a very important point.  Selective admissions policies have always served as a way for the elite to reproduce itself, and to ensure success for its members’ children.  However, this is done through adopting values and then policies that reflect these values.  The elite colleges do indeed promote the idea of merit—but what constitutes merit changes throughout different times and contexts.  This is important to understand because it has wide ranging implications for those trying to enter these systems from the outside.  Currently, the values of diversity, equality (of opportunity), a well-rounded student body, and wide access to programs and research in the college dominate.  So do the values of need-blind admissions and financial aid for all who are eligible.

If you are applying to an elite college, you can use this to your advantage.  You can demonstrate your unique potential role in college life, you can show how you will bring diversity, engage with programs, conduct research, etc.  Or, you can show, through the largesse of your parents, that you will bring in money to support all of these missions.  What’s important, for legacy and non-legacy applicants alike, is to understand this, and then to understand that whatever you bring to the table there are thousands of others, who are not better, but are also bringing things to the table.  Purely logistically, luck is going to play a big role in the admissions decision.

Note: As I wrote this, I realized that I am bringing up many different points, all of which need to be explored more.  I am blogging in a very loose, quick, style, and so the writing is almost a stream of consciousness.  I hope you will forgive the disjointed and clumsy parts of these early attempts, and stay tuned…