Yesterday morning, I participated in a panel discussion at New York University on admission preferences for legacy candidates with Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale, and Dan Golden of Bloomberg News. Ann Marcus from the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at NYU moderated. (Jenny Anderson has a write up in The New York Times‘ “Choice” blog here).
Brenzel, to his credit, gave only a qualified defense of legacy preferences and provided some interesting data about the substantial decline in legacy admissions at Yale over time. In 1939, he said, legacies (defined as children of Yale college graduates) made up 31.4 percent the enrolled class at Yale. Today, they make up 8.7 percent. (Including the children of Yale alumni of professional and graduate schools adds a few percentage points to these totals.)
These data raise two interesting points. First, it is possible today for a university to significantly diminish an emphasis on legacy admissions without causing a riot. In the 1960s, Yale famously faced a backlash from alumni such as William F. Buckley Jr. when it sought to simultaneously diversify by race and gender and reduce alumni preferences. As Peter Schmidt notes in a chapter of a volume that I edited, Affirmative Action for the Rich, Yale alumni revolted in the late 1960s when legacy admissions dropped substantially, and the revolt led to a reinstatement of legacy preference. By 2010, however, according to Brenzel, legacy admissions dropped below the level that triggered the earlier uproar, yet this time around, alumni have adjusted to the new reality.
Second, when asked, Brenzel conceded that the substantial decline in emphasis on legacy admissions at Yale has not been associated with a drop in fund-raising; indeed, donations have continued to rise. This data point is consistent with research I presented at the forum from Chad Coffman’s chapter in Affirmative Action for the Rich, finding “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities.” Coffman also found that at seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences altogether between 1998 and 2008, there was “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result of abolishing legacy preferences.”
At the forum, Brenzel noted that the percentage of low-income students receiving Pell Grants at Yale has increased to 14 percent, higher than the 10 percent overall figure for legacies. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and Brenzel, who himself is a first-generation college graduate, deserves credit for boosting Yale’s Pell numbers. Having said that, Yale still has a long way to go, and the head to head comparison of Pell and legacy figures is less egalitarian that it might appear at first blush because the two population pools are strikingly different in size. Roughly 40 percent of families with children nationally make below the Pell grant income threshold, while only a fraction of one percent of students are the children of Yale alumni.
Likewise, Brenzel’s observation that legacy candidates receive “about the same” preference weight as low-income students in Yale’s admissions process is reassuring only at first glance. From a meritocratic perspective, providing a leg up to strivers—economically disadvantaged students who have managed to do well despite having to overcome obstacles—makes eminent sense, while providing a leg up to children of Yale graduates simply compounds the unearned advantages of an already fortunate group of students. These differing circumstances surely help explain why average Americans oppose legacy preference by 75-23 percent, yet favor giving a preference to low-income students by 59-31 percent.
It is likely that the legacy preference issue will face legal challenge in the not-too-distant future. The experience at Yale—which has seen a dramatic decline in legacy preference, yet has generally seen donations rise during the same period—suggests, as Brenzel himself noted, that the financial fears of colleges about losing legacy preference are overblown. This reality bolsters, in turn, the argument for ending discrimination based on ancestry altogether.