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A British Distaste for Legacy Admissions

A painting by Michele Felice Corne of the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812.

In the year of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, it seems appropriate to continue writing about the differences between the U.S. and British higher-education systems. Most commentators agree that the reasons for that fascinatingly odd war and who won it remain controversial. Let’s hope that I can be clearer about some of our educational disagreements—and similarities.

So let’s turn to a difference between systems that is one of the most striking. Most people from Britain are genuinely shocked to find that elite U.S. universities reserve places for the children of the rich and well connected. It is probably the single fact about U.S. higher education that they find most disturbing. Gillian Tett, writing in the Financial Times last month, cites evidence that at least 15 percent of students at some top Ivy League universities are so-called legacy kids, and that having a family link increases a midlevel student’s chance of entry to those institutions by as much as 60 percent. It looks to outsiders as though places that are meant to be based on merit are being, in effect, sold.

Such practices raise many questions. They make it possible to wonder what really motivates wealthy donors to give to higher-education institutions, for one. And there must be concerns about economic inequality. As Tett concludes: “If America is going to stay competitive and cohesive, it desperately needs to create a decent higher-education system for a wide swath of its population—and not just for an elite that is becoming adept at reproducing privilege across generations, under the banner of donations.”

To be sure, there are examples of disinterested giving in America. Whatever one thinks of the source of the money, the hedge-fund manager John Paulson’s recent donation to Central Park surely falls into this category. Similarly, there certainly exist U.S. higher-education institutions that are intent on promoting equality of opportunity—think of some of the new colleges, like Olin College, that have come into being recently supported by foundations.

What is certain is that the crafting of the class that goes on in several elite U.S. universities, which, among other things, reserves places for the scions of the well-off, would be absolute anathema to the British population and to British politicians, including conservatives. But Britain can hardly take the moral high ground on this issue either. Its higher-education system contains systematic inequalities including a similar bias to admitting the children of the wealthy—but by other means, such as looking for applicants who graduated from elite schools. Successive governments have tried to correct for the bias but with only limited success. The latest report on the issue, by Alan Milburn, shows some of the causes and lays out mostly familiar policy suggestions.

Interestingly, the report draws on researchers like Thomas J. Espenshade in No Longer Separate, Not Yet EqualRace and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life and Adam Swift in How Not to Be a Hypocrite in pointing with approval—and not a little irony, one might think—to the admissions policies of Ivy League universities in promoting student diversity. But it might well be that the elite British higher-education institutions could learn from the ways that elite U.S. institutions do craft their classes, even while using somewhat different criteria that do not reproduce their biases.

Whatever the case, in a world of increasing inequality and the reassertion of a plutocracy, we surely need to think even more seriously about the role of universities as purveyors of privilege.

[Wikimedia image courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy Museum]

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