The Easiest Reform for College Admissions

Many admissions issues are complicated, but preferences for the children of alumni are indefensible.

The Johns Hopkins University
John Bilous / Shutterstock

In the world of college admissions, few choices about how to weigh applicants are simple. How much weight should schools give to applicants’ athletic performance, to standardized-test scores, to the need for a diverse student body, to the donations of wealthy benefactors? These are all complicated questions. But Johns Hopkins University just presented the higher-education world with at least one easy decision: Legacy admissions need to go.

Johns Hopkins recently made public a decision, reached in 2014 but kept secret until recently, to stop giving an admissions boost to applicants who have a parent who attended Johns Hopkins. Giving weight to legacy status takes attention away from consideration of an applicant’s accomplishments, raw talent, leadership ability, academic achievement, and athletic skills. And it does that without offering much in return: It doesn’t measure the obstacles that a student has overcome, or her potential to contribute to peers’ learning, or any other characteristics that colleges sometimes consider. Nor does a broad legacy-admissions preference guarantee that alumni will donate to an institution in any meaningful way—despite the widespread and often-unquestioned assumption that it will. (The students who might have been admitted if not for legacy preferences are potential donors, too.)

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.

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?

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.

At the same time, universities seem to rely on these large donations, and even people outside a school’s fundraising office are capable of viewing these transactions in relentlessly utilitarian terms. When my research team interviewed students on Ivy League campuses for my book The Diversity Bargain, many students suggested this compromise: If one legacy admission meant the university could pay for five packages of financial aid for disadvantaged students, it was worth it. One executive at the Harvard Management Company has even suggested that colleges simply auction a small number of seats to the highest bidders, which would eliminate the need for the more subtle admissions boosts given to a much larger group of legacy applicants and the children of donors.

Personally, I believe that admissions boosts for the children of donors need to end. But those of us who favor such a change must acknowledge that universities would need to find a solution to the financial burden this may cause—there is some reason to pause before considering an end to this practice, unlike legacy admissions.

Not much in college admissions is simple. Because the high schools from which applicants come differ markedly in their rigor and in their grading systems, many colleges use SAT scores to compare applicants—and scoring patterns on that standardized test have been used as an argument against affirmative action and legacy admissions alike. But the SAT, too, is a flawed yardstick. Scores on the test are highly correlated with household income and parental education, yet not very well correlated with actual academic performance in college. These problems have led to a growing movement of selective colleges that are scrapping the SAT requirement, going SAT-optional. The University of Chicago is the latest to do so. A lawsuit in California is even arguing that the use of the SAT in admission to University of California campuses is unlawful, because it introduces bias against poor, black, and Latino applicants.

Selective colleges have multiple goals in mind when they admit students. Compromises need to be made and then justified to families, alumni, lawyers, and a range of constituencies on campus—faculty, coaches, the development office, and more. Universities need to make sure they remain financially sound, to ensure that the students admitted have the academic skills necessary to thrive on campus, to promote a more diverse leadership for American democracy, and much more. Why expend any energy or moral capital on defending an indefensible policy like legacy admissions? All selective colleges should follow Johns Hopkins’s lead.