Abolish Legacy AdmissionsRoundup
tags: meritocracy, elitism, admissions, colleges and universities, Privilege
Ronald J. Daniels is president of the Johns Hopkins University.
In the late 1990s, I served as dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto. As Canada’s most selective law school, the competition for admission was fierce. Applicants were always in search of anything they could do to secure an advantage in the application process. In my position as dean, it was not uncommon for alumni whose children were applying to the school to approach me and inquire what kind of admissions bump those children would receive by virtue of being a legacy. The answer I gave was always the same: none whatsoever.
One encounter stands out. A prominent and philanthropic alumnus whose child had been denied admission to the school contacted me in the hope that I would reconsider the application. After all, he reasoned, his relationship with the school must mean something. As I had done in many similar situations, I explained that there were clear guardrails in place that fettered my capacity to reverse this decision. I simply had no ability to admit his child. Before our phone call ended, he said something that has been etched in my memory ever since: “If you really want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great Ivy League law schools in the United States, you better start acting like one.”
When I came to work in the United States, I saw firsthand how true these words were. For all of the progress that highly selective universities have started to make in recruiting low-income and historically underrepresented students, they continue to cling tenaciously to admissions policies that confer significant advantages on children of privilege. Legacy admissions, when coupled with the considerable advantages that many of these children already have — like stable families, engaged parents, high-quality K-12 schools, ample extracurricular opportunities for personal enrichment and development — set these applicants up to triumph over applicants from less-fortunate circumstances. Several years into my tenure as president of Johns Hopkins, we decided to strike at one particularly egregious instance of this system — we eliminated the use of legacy preferences in our admissions.
Legacy preference is immobility written as policy, preserving for children the same advantages enjoyed by their parents. It embodies in stark and indefensible terms inherited privilege in higher education and has compromised college and university admissions for decades. Moreover, it has drained the public trust in colleges and universities at a moment when the public is seething with rage at the seeming illusion of the meritocratic ideal and widening inequality. It is also a policy that is fully within the control of institutions to change at any moment.
The practice of giving admissions advantages to children of alumni is virtually alien to Canadian and European universities. Yet legacy preferences remain commonplace in the United States, where they constitute, in the words of the journalist Daniel Golden, an “almost exclusively American custom.” The majority of the 100 highest-ranked schools in the U.S. News & World Report still engage in some form of the practice. Remarkably, it has not yet buckled under the pressure of competition or rankings.
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