Admissions Preferences for Alumni Kids Foster 'Clueless Confidence'

Harvard Business School Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

The first time I ever heard the term “legacy preference” was, appropriately enough, at Harvard, when a student from Yale used it to rib a third-generation Harvard man in a debating competition. To a Canadian, coming from a land of ultra-affordable public universities, the idea that a parent’s degree could somehow help you get admitted to college was a revelation—as was the value of alumni donors. Teasing aside, the rewards of legacy admission are assumed: It values tradition, builds strong inter-generational networks, and, yes, encourages alumni giving.

It’s also invisible. For the most part, no one knows which are legacy students if they choose not to identify themselves. Unless you’re a Bush or a Gore, a Dimon or a Jobs, it’s pretty easy to avoid facing questions about whether you got in on your own merits, or on those of your parents.

Getting an edge because of skin color, on the other hand, is far more controversial and carries fewer, if any, positive connotations. It’s also something people think they can identify because—even in the era of a supposedly post-racial presidency—we all see skin color. An African American friend of mine, a successful investment banker, told me that when his children were in private school, they were often asked if they had some form of scholarship or financial aid. When one got into an Ivy League school, the inference that affirmative action had ensured admission came up more than once. It’s a stigma that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for one, never forgot.

Preferential admissions policies are under scrutiny this week with the recent Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan’s affirmative action ban. Evan J. Mandery is the latest academic to argue that legacy preferences are unfair. They give an advantage to the already advantaged—a 2011 Harvard study found that the children of alumni were 45 percent more likely to be admitted—and undermine efforts to recruit on merit. That’s one reason such top research schools as MIT and CalTech don’t have them.

As for stigma, it’s mixed—surely some legacy students suffer from imposter syndrome—but being related to an alumnus (especially a rich one) can evoke a certain prestige: You’re from a family of winners, the kind of kid others want to know. Ties to the university become badges of pride.

The problem isn’t simply that legacy admissions are unfair. It’s that the recipients themselves often underestimate the impact it has on their own admission or their own success. In an effort to justify a dubious policy that they see as critical to raising funds, college presidents typically underplay how big an edge these kids get. Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber has described it as “literally a tie-breaker in cases where credentials are about even.” With almost 30 percent of legacy candidates admitted when the odds for everyone else are closer to 7 percent, that’s hard to believe.

This helps foster a mindset that can be hard to shake. An elite degree becomes an entitlement, an inherited privilege that people deserve no less than that summer internship at dad’s law firm or that spinoff from mom’s reality TV show. Their success is as hard-won as the kid who sweated to get in on his or her own steam. It’s like the myth of genius that you see on Wall Street. Succeeding with the wind at your back becomes a personal accomplishment that justifies big bonuses, tax privileges, and the perception that you’re a master of finance. (The reverse, as we know, is rarely true: Failure is due to some systemic issue like a bad economy and shouldn’t be pinned on you.)

Those who lack awareness of their advantages can sometimes lack sympathy for those who don’t. Clueless confidence can breed clueless discrimination when it comes to hiring, compensating, voting, or other decisions. It’s why men sometimes can’t see qualities in women that they recognize in other men; why a great year for the market means massive bonuses while a bad year means bailouts; why getting points because of daddy’s degree carries on a proud tradition while getting that edge because you’re under-represented diminishes the value of the degree.

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