The Single Biggest Fix for Inequality at Elite Colleges

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Written By Pinang Driod

Legacy admissions are in trouble. Applicants from the richest one percent of families are nearly twice as likely to be admitted to elite Ivy Plus colleges than similarly qualified low- or middle-class applicants, and many of these privileged students benefit from being the children of alumni or donors. Left-leaning groups recently filed a lawsuit challenging legacy admissions on civil-rights grounds, the Department of Education has announced an investigation into the practice, and, last month, the Republican Todd Young and the Democrat Tim Kaine introduced a Senate bill that would effectively ban it. The preference for legacy applicants may be the most visible symbol of unearned intergenerational privilege.

But that’s mostly what it is—a symbol. The truth is that banning legacy admissions wouldn’t level the college-admissions playing field at selective schools like Harvard, where I teach. My team’s research suggests that a ban would make a small impact at best. Elite colleges would replace some rich legacies with rich non-legacies, and little else would change.

This may seem counterintuitive, because legacy applicants receive a huge advantage in admissions at most elite colleges. Using internal admissions data from several Ivy Plus colleges (the Ivy League, plus MIT, Stanford, Duke, and the University of Chicago), we find that legacies are about four times more likely to be admitted as non-legacies with similar academic credentials. Concretely, this works out to be about 112 “extra” legacies in a typical Ivy Plus college class of 1,650 students.

And yet, eliminating legacy preferences without making any other changes would do little to improve economic diversity. My colleagues and I estimate that it would reduce the number of students from families earning more than $600,000 a year—that is, the top one percent—by only two percentage points, or about 35 students in a typical class. This is because the children of high-income families still enjoy so many other advantages. For example, they are far more likely to be recruited athletes, or to receive high extracurricular and other nonacademic ratings in the admissions process. And because the children of alumni are more likely than other applicants to be rich, they would continue to benefit from these advantages in a post-legacy world. Many of them would still get into their preferred institution, and those who didn’t would mostly be replaced with other wealthy students whose parents happened to attend different schools.

The broader point is that wealthy families will pursue every advantage in the high-stakes game of elite-college admissions. Consider the example of athletic recruitment. Are rich students so overrepresented in collegiate sports because they are innately better athletes? Probably not. Rather, recognizing that athletics can provide a competitive advantage, their parents enroll them in expensive year-round travel teams, pay for private coaching, and invest in sports such as fencing and squash that have lower participation, making it easier to stand out. If colleges stopped admitting recruited athletes but focused more on community service, rich people would find ways to game that too. College-coaching companies might offer curated experiences that provide the most compelling fodder for an application essay. Reforms that shut down one form of preferential treatment in isolation will just increase focus on the others. It’s privilege whack-a-mole.

So what would make a real difference? Over the summer, my colleagues and I published a report measuring the advantage that high-income applicants have in elite-college admissions. I was stunned by the attention our research received. After all, the fact that prestigious universities favor the rich was hardly new information. Still, simply quantifying this affirmative action for the rich more precisely was enough to trigger a big wave of media coverage and public outcry. The lesson is that if we want to fix the problem, the first step is to make that type of data available by default.

Universities have a long track record of making big changes to admissions in response to public pressure. During the civil-rights movement, for example, colleges dramatically increased the number of Black students they admitted over a period of just a few years. To make similar progress on economic diversity, we must be able to hold colleges accountable for results. Currently that’s impossible, because we know only a limited amount about the income diversity of college classes. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. The U.S. Department of Education should require colleges to add an application question about family income, perhaps reported in categories that correspond to different parts of the household income distribution, such as the top one percent. Colleges are already required to report race, ethnicity, gender, and other attributes through the DoE’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, so adding income would be straightforward.

Better income data would ratchet up public pressure on highly selective colleges, whose leaders care deeply about their reputation. One encouraging recent example comes from efforts to use public data on the share of students who are eligible for federal financial aid to measure economic diversity. The Washington Monthly has long ranked colleges on how well they contribute to social mobility. Outlets such as U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times have recently followed suit by ranking schools according to the number of students receiving Pell Grants, which corresponds roughly to the bottom half of the income distribution. Elite schools such as Princeton and Yale have responded by increasing the proportion of their students receiving Pell Grants by more than 60 percent from 2011 to 2021. This shows that public pressure can work. But focusing on Pell eligibility has serious limitations. It doesn’t distinguish between families with comfortable middle-class incomes and the truly wealthy, and it encompasses only students who have applied for financial aid. We need better data.

Transparency alone is not enough, of course. Real reform will require sustained public pressure on highly selective private universities to start valuing economic diversity as much as other forms of diversity. That will make a much bigger difference than ending legacy admissions ever could.

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