Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

I was appalled by the following letter to the editor, printed in today's NY times:

To the Editor:

Richard D. Kahlenberg is proposing a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist: the “legacy admission.” Rather than viewing the acceptance of a child to a parent’s alma mater as “affirmative action,” consider it the successful result of generations pursuing the American dream.

For example, Granddad is the first in his family to go to college and gets a good job with a salary able to sustain a middle-class life. Then Dad gets into an “elite” college and gets a job with a salary able to sustain an upper-middle-class life, so Junior lives in the best school district in the state, has an SAT/ACT tutor, has time for music lessons, participates in sports and volunteers for community service rather than being forced into a part-time job to help pay grocery bills. Hence, Junior is a qualified and attractive applicant to Dad’s alma mater.

Rich kids don’t get into the Ivies because their parents went to the Ivies. Rich kids get into the Ivies because their parents are rich and have provided these students with the opportunities to build résumés making them attractive applicants.

Melisa W. Lai Becker
Somerville, Mass., Sept. 30, 2010

The writer is a former undergraduate admissions officer for Brown University.

The system works! Rich people buy resume-building activities for their kids, so the kids get into an exclusive college! Why would anyone have a problem with that?

Well, I, for one, have a lot of problems with that. In 2007, the wealthiest 1% of the population of the USA took in 23.5% of the total national income (compare this to the late 1970s, when the wealthiest 1% took in 9% of the total national income). We have reached an extremely toxic overload of the rich getting richer, and the nation's elite colleges have become part of the cycle.

P.S. The above figures come from Aftershock, the new book by Robert Reich. I'll have more to say about the book after I finish it.


  1. Dumb. shallow. wrong. letter.

    I agree it's not just being a Legacy that gets you in. Rich kids get in because their parents foot the bill.
    (Maybe the original article stated so. I haven't read it yet.)

    Quote From Daniel Golden book The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges:

    That virtually all elite private colleges give preference to the sons and daughters of alumni will come as a surprise to no one. But preference also extends to wealthy applicants whose families have been identified as potential donors -- "development cases" in the parlance of the trade. Golden documents that even Harvard, with its $25.9 billion endowment, is not above giving preference to the scions of the super-rich. His primary example, however, of development cases being central to the admissions process is Duke, where the university embarked on a systematic strategy of raising its endowment by seeking out wealthy applicants. Golden estimates that Duke admitted 100 development applicants each year in the late 1990s who otherwise would have been rejected. Though this may be something of an extreme case, special consideration for applicants flagged by the development office is standard practice at elite colleges and universities.

    and the link-

  2. You're right that, even if that letter-writer's theory were true, it would not be cause for celebration. But her theory isn't in fact true. Because of the favoritism to legacies, colleges do choose students who they otherwise would not choose.

    If her theory to the contrary were true, there would be no reason to ask students on the application where their parents went to school. In fact, Brown, which uses the Common Application form, does ask students for that information.

  3. Although the legacy admissions policies are troublesome in many senses, the legacy students do benefit the non-legacy students in several ways. Anyone who can pay the full freight or make a huge donation to the school is helping subsidize the lower income, non-legacy students. Ivies typically do a very nice job of making college affordable for lower income students; often it costs less to attend an Ivy than your garden variety State U. Another benefit is that the non-legacy students have the opportunity to network with and make connections through the legacy and high profile students. I knew a boy in high school who got into Princeton because his father is a famous novelist who attended Princeton. This kid was in no way Princeton material but his father no doubt made it worth Princeton's while to admit the son and anyone who was friendly with the son gained a connection in the literary world. I knew a girl in high school who got into Harvard purely on her own smarts and met many children of prominent people while she was there who helped pave her way in her career. And her education was almost entirely free due to Harvard's generous financial aid made possible by a huge endowment. Overall I'm not a fan of the legacy admissions policies but I'm also not a fan of congress getting involved in it in any way.