Ending legacy admissions is right but hurts blacks

Sixteen years from now, when my son applies to college, odds are that he will not be asked about his race or where his parents went to college. He will confront a starkly different admissions landscape than I did in the early 2000s, when many universities took race into account to build diverse student bodies.

When I applied to Harvard, my identity as a black woman was probably a mark in my favour. At the same time, my lack of any familial connection to the school surely did me no favours at a university that admits legacy applicants at more than five times the rate of non-legacies.

That may be changing. Affirmative-action policies are in greater danger than ever, thanks to an all but secure conservative Supreme Court majority, the Trump Administration’s reversal of the Obama Administration’s policies on the issue and a legal challenge that claims Harvard’s admissions process discriminates against Asian students. As commentators have considered the potential fallout of outlawing affirmative action, many have trained their sights on legacy admissions as a system that perpetuates the kind of inequality for which affirmative action seeks to correct.

The increased scrutiny of legacy admissions is entirely appropriate — those who deride the practice as a backdoor affirmative-action programme for privileged white students are not wrong. But in 2018, white college applicants aren’t the only ones who benefit from admissions preferences for the children of alumni.

While the likely end of affirmative action is a more obvious setback for diversity and racial justice, the potential elimination of legacy preferences would also be a loss for at least some people of colour. It has been only a few decades since we were welcomed into predominantly white colleges and universities in any significant numbers; we have had only a generation or two to begin building our own legacies. So for some of us, the moral rightness of ending legacy preferences to create a more equitable admissions process comes with a bittersweet edge: it adds one more thing to the pile of privileges that people of colour cannot pass down to our children as easily as untold generations of whites have done.

Thanks in part to affirmative-action policies, the decades from the 1970s onward heralded a significant increase in the admission of students of colour at American colleges and universities. From just 1996 to 2012, college enrolment among Hispanic students more than tripled, and black student enrolment rose 72 per cent. In 2014, Harvard admitted the most black students in its history, and in 2017, the majority of the school’s incoming class was non-white. As waves of college graduates of colour have gone on to have families, these demographic trends have created a growing pipeline of legacies of colour who would receive admissions boosts at their parents’ alma maters.

For underrepresented black, Latino and Native American alumni, the prospect of our children finally being able to lay claim to the legacy advantage after hundreds of years of being shut out feels hard-won and precious. While I grew up solidly middle-class, I didn’t have generations’ worth of connections to grease the wheels for my entrance to an elite institution such as Harvard. One of my great-grandfathers had only a sixth-grade education, and my great-grandmother never finished high school. On the other side of my family, my grandparents went to a Southern historically black college in the 1940s and early 1950s, well before any elite white universities began the process of full integration.

I wasn’t the first generation to go to college, but my entrance into one of the oldest and most respected universities in the world lifted me — and, by extension, my family — into an echelon of privilege to which, until then, we had not yet been granted access. And when I had my son, I was warmed by the thought that when the time came for him to apply, the path to Harvard might be just a bit smoother because I had gone before him.

It is frustrating but not entirely surprising that legacy admissions stand to be eliminated just as people of colour might begin to reap the benefits. The very word “legacy” evokes ancestors handing down something valuable from one generation to the next, and American institutions are not historically known for promoting the intergenerational accumulation of wealth, achievement or privilege among people of colour. The black middle class in particular is notoriously fragile, with structural barriers to things such as home ownership putting even the children of economically successful parents at significant risk of backsliding into poverty.

The Brookings Institution reported in 2015 that “most black middle-class kids are downwardly mobile”, as seven in ten black Americans born into families within the middle-income quintile will fall into one of the two lower quintiles as adults.

Even wealthy people of colour have a harder time making their socioeconomic status stick across generations: a recent study found that while most white children who grow up in wealthy households will remain wealthy or at least upper-middle class in adulthood, most black children raised in wealthy households will not, with 38 per cent ultimately ending up lower-middle class or poor. Native American and Hispanic families similarly struggle with disproportionate rates of downward mobility. And now we may not be able to pass down any advantage in the admissions game, either.

As elite colleges report admissions rates that seem to be inching ever nearer to 0 per cent, it is tempting to wish that they would hang on to the legacy practice a little while longer so that my son and other children of colour might some day benefit. After all, where a person goes to school matters not only in terms of warm and fuzzy alumni pride, but in terms of cash: graduates of Ivy League and other top colleges, on average, enjoy salaries tens of thousands of dollars higher than those from other schools. Given the very real financial stakes tied to elite college admissions, I, like any parent, want the best possible chance for my child.

But social justice, in education and elsewhere, demands that a policy’s advantages for me should not be the sole factor driving my support or opposition. Rather, the collective good should take precedent, and the research is clear that legacy admissions do not further that good.

Whatever the incidental benefit to a handful of people of colour, legacy admissions preferences primarily serve to advantage the advantaged: the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries continue to be white and often wealthy applicants who do not need another leg up in the world. With schools such as Harvard and others filling huge portions of their classes with legacies, students from less privileged backgrounds, including minorities, have been crowded out. Thus, even as the children of the relatively few alumni of colour may have found their way into the ranks of accepted students, in practical effect, legacy preferences have just reinforced existing racial and economic hierarchies.

It does seem a shame to lose a potential engine of intergenerational prosperity, however limited, just when a critical mass of minority children stands to benefit. But especially without affirmative action as a countervailing force, the continued existence of legacy preferences will be indefensible among those who hope for increased educational opportunity for all people of colour — not just those who were born into it.

Much more than I want my son to walk an easier path to the Ivy League, I want a higher-education system that welcomes new and diverse families. Instead of him gaining an advantage on a college application, I would rather see him inherit a fairer world.

Ashton Lattimore is a writer and lawyer based in Philadelphia

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Published Aug 7, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 7, 2018 at 6:09 am)

Ending legacy admissions is right but hurts blacks

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