Look Who’s Getting a Leg Up from Legacy

Harvard might have to sell its soul, but at least we should ask for a good price

I’ve never confessed this before—not even to my roommates: I’m a beneficiary of legacy admissions.

That’s an embarrassing fact to acknowledge at Harvard, where “legacies,” the children of alumni, enjoy preferential treatment in the admissions process. Harvard accepts one-third of legacy applicants—more than three times its overall admissions rate. The federal Office for Civil Rights, in a 1990 review of Harvard’s admissions practices, found that legacy preferences allowed applicants with “weaker credentials” to gain acceptance to Harvard. Tell any Harvard student that you’re a beneficiary of legacy admissions and he’ll assume that you’re a polo-playing Porcellian Club member with gentleman’s-B GPA.

I’m not the stereotypical beneficiary of legacy admissions, though. My parents didn’t even go here.

Legacies make up 10 to 15 percent of the student body at most Ivy League schools, according to Daniel L. Golden ’78, the Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

I fall into the other 85 to 90 percent of Ivy undergrads. Legacy preference didn’t help me in the admissions process—but it’s been a boon for me ever since.

I spent this past summer in Ecuador—on the dime of a Class of 1936 alum whose two sons also attended Harvard. A Class of 1946 alum and his Class of ’52 brother endowed a fund that defrayed my tuition costs sophomore year; they donated to Harvard after several of their children graduated from the College.

Would these altruistic alums have given to Harvard—and, indirectly, to me—if their progeny had been rejected by the admissions office? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet my tuition bill on it.

BET YOUR BOTTOM DOLLAR

Golden, by contrast, is willing to make that bet. (And it’s an easier bet for him to make, since his room and board aren’t riding on it.) Golden claims that colleges could abolish legacy preference without taking a huge fundraising hit. He notes that “three prestigious private colleges”—Caltech, Cooper Union in New York City, and Berea College in Kentucky—“flourish without preferences for…alumni children.”

“Just as Copernicus disproved the medieval notion that the sun revolves around the earth, Caltech disproves the modern dogma that the survival of private education revolves around admissions breaks for the rich,” Golden writes.

His analogy might be too tight: Copernicus postulated—but did not prove—that the earth revolves around the sun. It took more than a half-century after Copernicus’s death before Galileo would muster more convincing evidence for the heliocentric theory.

Likewise, Caltech’s case falls far short of a “proof.” Caltech’s emphasis on science research means that its faculty members can rely on federal agencies and other grant-givers for funding—a luxury that many Harvard humanities professors don’t enjoy. Whereas Caltech derives more than 40 percent of its revenue from research grants and contracts, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences derives just 17 percent of its income from those sources. In other words, Harvard must be more reliant on private donations—and, specifically, on alums.

Moreover, even Caltech’s president tells Golden that the school’s refusal to adopt a legacy-preference policy makes fundraising “a much, much harder thing.” At Cooper Union, meanwhile, school officials readily acknowledge that a legacy-preference policy would boost fundraising. “If we had legacy preference, we could buy a parcel and build a gym,” a Cooper vice president tells Golden. For Caltech and Cooper Union, pure meritocracy carries a high cost.

Golden’s own investigation shows that legacy preference and its close cousin “development admission” (favoritism towards applicants from rich non-alumni families) contributes considerably to colleges’ coffers. For instance, in 1996, Harvard admitted an applicant named Anne Chandler Bass “in the hope of favors yet to come” from her father, a Yale-educated oil magnate. When Anne Chandler Bass graduated in 2000, her father donated $7 million to Harvard—a gift that now pays the salary of Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel. (The delicious irony—which goes unmentioned by Golden—is that this apparently-unjust admissions break is the source of the funding that facilitates Sandel’s wildly-popular course “Justice.”)

The Bass case is one of the less-flagrant examples of spots-for-sale in Golden’s book. After all, Bass anted up after his daughter graduated from Harvard. By contrast, real estate tycoon Charles Kushner pledged $2.5 million to Harvard just as his son Jared prepared to apply. Even though an official at Jared’s own high school acknowledged that the scion’s GPA and SATs didn’t merit Harvard admission, he nonetheless won a spot in the Class of ’03. In sum, the examples of admissions-for-donations quid-pro-quos in Golden’s book amount to many millions of dollars in revenue for Harvard. If the University did away with legacy preferences and development admits, it would watch a weighty wad of cash go away as well.

Golden insists that, “for most alumni, giving to their alma mater doesn’t hinge on whether it accepts their children; it stems from other motives, such as gratitude for their own education or desire to promote research or teaching in an overlooked field.” That’s a sweet thought—but it’s utterly unsupported by evidence. Eschewing legacy preference has left Caltech with an alumni giving rate that’s 15 percent below Harvard’s and 29 percent lower than Princeton’s, according to 2004-2005 data. Cooper Union’s alumni giving rate is 11 percent below Harvard’s, and Berea’s is 21 percent below, by one calcuation. If your alma mater declines to give your children an admissions break, the data suggests that you are indeed less likely to donate.

Seemingly anticipating this objection, Golden also argues that well-endowed universities such as Harvard “could easily withstand a small decline in giving.” Perhaps. But less money coming in means less money being spent on priorities such as medical research and programs like the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, which has eliminated tuition costs for working-class families.

SELLING OUR SOUL

And that raises an ethical dilemma—one that fans of Sandel’s “Justice” might mull. Assuming that legacy preferences and development admits do raise revenue for Harvard, how many millions of dollars are we willing to sacrifice in order to preserve our “meritocratic soul”?

Harvard faced a similar quandary—in a slightly different form—last fall. The Bush administration ordered the University to allow military recruitment on campus—even though the military’s anti-gay policies blatantly violate Harvard’s nondiscrimination code. Administration officials threatened to cut off a half-billion dollars in annual federal funds unless Harvard complied. Harvard bowed to Bush. It sold its soul for $500 million a year.

Was it worth it? Immanuel Kant might say not. But if that extra money goes to stem-cell researchers who make strides towards curing dreadful diseases, then most of us would be hard-pressed to second-guess the University’s decision.

How, then, can Harvard minimize the injurious effects of legacy preference while maximizing the good that comes out of it? Harvard might choose to accept fewer upper-middle-class legacies—but to continue taking children from fabulously-wealthy graduates as well as non-alumni fat cats. Upon first glance, that seems strikingly unjust. It would favor the children of multimillionaire alums over the children of ordinary-millionaire alums. (More than half of Harvard’s graduates are millionaires, according to an estimate by 02138 Magazine.)

But devoting fewer spots in each class to alums’ kids would free up more space for meritorious non-legacy applicants. And focusing favoritism on a few über-rich applicants would allow Harvard to maintain its revenue stream—and its research programs—and its financial aid initiatives. If we’re going to sell our soul, we should at least make sure that the devil gives us a good deal.

Golden’s goal is to illustrate the iniquities of legacy preference and development admission. He argues, convincingly, that some of the spots in our Harvard class are for sale—at a precious price. But, inadvertently, he also shows that legacy preference contributes to Harvard’s largess—and, hence, to our own well-being. Step into a class taught by Sandel or Bass Professor of English Louis Menand and you too are a beneficiary.

We’re all legacy admits now.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.

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