The strongest legacy applicants will be admitted anyway; they make up about 3.5 percent of the current freshman class at Johns Hopkins, down from about 12.5 percent several years ago. But reducing the number of legacies makes room in a college class for top students from all backgrounds; the percentage of students who are eligible for Pell Grants at the school has more than doubled during the same period. Johns Hopkins’s experience since eliminating legacy admissions undercuts other colleges’ claims that they are engines of social mobility, that they select the very best candidates from their deep pool of applicants, and that the admissions process is fundamentally meritocratic.
Read: Elite-college admissions are broken
Legacy admissions do not rise to the level of the Varsity Blues celebrity scandal, in which dozens of wealthy parents paid big dollars to a private consultant to enable their children to cheat on the SAT and to bribe coaches to claim that their children were needed on sports teams. However, they represent different versions of the same problem: a special admissions door for applicants who have already enjoyed major advantages in life.
The irony is that the legacy-admissions preference, a policy supported only by a vague notion that catering to long-ago graduates is in an institution’s long-term interest, has survived at elite institutions, while affirmative action now faces existential threats. A policy in which black, Latino, and Native American applicants can get a small boost in admissions has multiple important justifications supporting it. Universities and their students welcome its impact on campus life and interracial dialogue. Others view affirmative action as a policy to extend opportunity to groups historically underrepresented on elite-college campuses, or even as a form of reparations for past exclusion. Finally, affirmative action diversifies the pool of potential leaders in society, so that our politicians, judges, executives, and teachers might better reflect the society they serve.
Yet affirmative action has been under sustained political and legal attack for decades. Opinion polls since the 1960s have continually asked ordinary Americans for their views on the subject, and politicians have exploited it for political advantage. Some will recall President Bill Clinton’s charge to “mend it, [not] end it.” Multiple states have had public referenda leading to bans on affirmative action in college admissions. A case now working its way through the courts could extinguish the practice entirely. Why aren’t legacy admissions in similar peril?
Read: College-admissions hysteria is not the norm
American colleges and universities are coy about acknowledging the moral trade-offs that they obviously make. While prosecutors say that the money the former sitcom star Lori Loughlin spent to ensure her daughter’s acceptance at the University of Southern California broke the law, the $2.5 million that Jared Kushner’s parents spent to ensure his admission to Harvard despite Kushner’s mediocre performance in high school was fully legal. This policy of essentially selling seats further compromises universities’ claims of fairness in admissions.