The Shame Deficit

As a transplant from England, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the weakness of norms against nepotism in the American elite—particularly the continued practice of legacy admissions.

A college graduate wearing a cap and gown.
H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty

About the author: Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Future of the Middle Class Initiative.

Updated at 4:21 p.m. ET on April 25, 2022.

It’s odd.

The United Kingdom has a hereditary monarchy and a hereditary aristocracy, but strong norms against nepotism in education and the workplace.

The U.S. is a republic, a nation founded on anti-hereditary principles, where nepotism is not only permitted but codified—most obviously in the practice of legacy preferences in college admissions. My eldest son has two parents who went to the University of Oxford, but if that fact had made a difference to his own chances of getting in, both he and we would have been appalled, as would all the other applicants. (He did not get in.)

This American anachronism may be on its way out. Johns Hopkins abandoned it in 2014, reducing the percentage of legacy students from 13 to 4 percent. “Legacy preference is immobility written as policy, preserving for children the same advantages enjoyed by their parents,” Hopkins President Ron Daniels has written. “It embodies in stark and indefensible terms inherited privilege in higher education.” In 2021, Amherst College followed suit.

Lawmakers are starting to move against legacy admissions too. A bill introduced into Congress last month would prohibit colleges that get federal money from giving an advantage to legacy applicants. A bill has been introduced in the New York Assembly and Senate that would ban the practice in both public and private colleges in the state. A similar bill is being considered in Connecticut. Colorado banned legacies in public colleges last year. These recent efforts, however, are not the first time lawmakers have made a run at legacy preferences. In 2003, Senator Edward Kennedy proposed requiring colleges in receipt of federal funds to publish data on the economic and racial composition of their legacy admits. His bill was defeated.

Things may be different this time around, but we should not be too sure. Powerful vested interests are at work here. They include those of the well-connected alums of these colleges, who are rather inclined toward a policy that will give their children a better chance of following in their footsteps. Support for both legacy and donor preferences rises with household income, according to a Suffolk University/USA Today poll.

What’s needed here is a change in social norms. Many upper-middle-class parents feel little compunction about pulling every string possible to get their offspring a place at a prestigious college, even if that means elbowing out a more qualified but less fortunate applicant. The prevailing norm in the U.S. is that parents should do everything possible to help their children get ahead of others. This doesn’t have to be ethical. It just has to be legal.

The only mistake made by the parents caught in Operation Varsity Blues was to cross that line, a line that Andrew Lelling, the Massachusetts U.S. district attorney prosecuting the case, helpfully drew for us. “We’re not talking about donating a building so the school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” he said. “We’re talking about deception and fraud, fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, and bribed college officials.” It’s okay to get your child a place by making a donation, just not with a bribe. In 1998, the real-estate developer Charles Kushner gave $2.5 million to Harvard; in 1999, his son Jared was accepted to the college, even though, as the journalist Daniel Golden reported, Jared’s academic record was less than stellar. No problem. It is absolutely fine for your kids to get preferential treatment if you attended the college in question.

As a transplant from the U.K., I’ve been repeatedly struck by the weakness of norms against nepotism and opportunity-hoarding in the American elite, not least among those who would describe themselves as liberal. Few feel any shame in sending their children to expensive private K–12 schools or providing internship opportunities to friends and family. Even many parents who profess a desire for a fairer society appreciate that legacy applicants get an admissions bump equivalent to an extra 160 points on their SAT. Parental interest is often seen as an unalloyed virtue. Blood is thicker than justice.

While Jared Kushner was safely ensconced at Harvard in 2001, Oxford’s Trinity College rejected the application of a wealthy donor’s son, leading to the cancellation of his planned gift. Michael Beloff, the president of the college, contrasted the two countries’ approaches in an op-ed for The Times of London, explaining, “With fewer resources, less space, strict government quotas and substantial dependence on public monies, we do things differently here.”

But this wasn’t always the case. Up until the late 1950s, Oxford colleges gave a very clear preference to the sons of “gentlemen” (i.e., aristocracy) and of alumni. But in the more egalitarian postwar era, this kind of privilege became socially toxic. There was rhetorical pressure from politicians, certainly. The postwar Labour governments of the 1940s and ’50s were determined to make society less constricted by social class, and Oxford and Cambridge were important symbols in this crusade. As early as 1949, Walter Moberly, the chair of the University Grants Commission, lamented the role of Oxbridge in “buttress[ing] the existing social order.” But it was the colleges themselves, sensing a shift in public and political opinion, that ended legacy preferences.

In the U.S., the history of legacy preferences is the other way around. Elite colleges adopted legacy preferences in the early part of the 20th century, largely to keep down the number of Jews filling the lecture halls. In the 1960s, the dean of admissions at Yale, R. Inslee Clark, reduced the weight of legacy status and halved the proportion of legacies in the freshman class, from 24 to 12 percent. Outrage ensued. The conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. complained that without legacy preference, “a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement test … has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul’s School.” Clark lost his fight, and today legacy preferences are treated as business as usual.

Even people who feel some qualms about the practice can say, accurately, that “everybody does it.” It’s the norm. And that is what has to change. The reshaping of norms can be a powerful driver of social change, as recent history confirms: Think about smoking, or drunk driving, or attitudes toward same-sex relationships. When norms shift, so does the social acceptance of certain kinds of behavior. What was once “just what everyone does” becomes “simply not done.” Norms are often more powerful than rules and laws because they are regulated by, as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues in his book How Change Happens, socio-emotional responses such as “pride (a kind of informal social subsidy) and guilt or shame (a kind of informal social tax).”

As Sunstein suggests, norms can sometimes alter quickly, through social contagion. “Norm entrepreneurs” can invoke new norms and oppose existing ones. If their position is adopted by others, “norm cascades” can drive rapid change. All of which is to say that the norms influencing our lives are not beyond our own influence. We can change the rules of the game, rather than just playing it. We can be norm entrepreneurs, or at least participants in a norm cascade.

That’s the goal of the Leave Your Legacy campaign, run by the advocacy organization EdMobilizer. College students and alums are asked to pledge not to make any donations to their alma mater until legacy preferences have been abolished at the institution. Before policy can change, a culture shift is needed to prepare the ground.

One of the parents caught in Operation Varsity Blues was the “ethical investor” William McGlashan. In a series of calls wiretapped by the FBI, McGlashan discussed Photoshopping pictures of his son to make him seem like a football player, as well as cheating on standardized tests. At one point in the plotting, he lamented: “The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”

But the world doesn’t work in a particular way by accident. It works that way because of the trillions of decisions that go into making a culture. McGlashan went further than parents working within the law. But morally speaking, this is really a difference of degree, not kind.

The fact is that if we don’t want to live in a nepotistic society, we have to stop practicing nepotism. And by “we,” I mean you. It is that simple, and that difficult. It is good news that a handful of legislators are willing to take up this cause. But they won’t succeed if they are going against the cultural tide. On legacy admissions as on anything else, the equilibrium can be shifted. But it won’t shift on its own. If you think the game is rigged, and especially if it is rigged in your favor, the right thing to do is refuse to play.

This article previously misstated the organization that created the Leave Your Legacy campaign.