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Legacy Admissions: Affirmative Action for the Rich and White

A new book edited by Richard Kahlenberg and backed by the Brookings Institution (not exactly a bastion of conservative thought) hammers home what we’ve known all along: elite colleges offer preferences to children of their alumni.

The result:  Less qualified legacy candidates sometimes are accepted over more qualified candidates without alumni ties.

My comment:  Duh.

Does it bother me that sons and daughters of rich-and-mostly-white alumni get a demonstrable, measurable preference in admission to elite institution?  Sure.  But it also bugs me that a girl with one  grandparent from Argentina who moved to the US to work at Goldman Sachs can claim to be “Latina” and therefore be given a preference for being part of an “underrepresented minority.”  It also bugs me that colleges take into account whether you can run fast, jump high, or throw a ball–and give preferences accordingly. It also bugs me that the nice Jewish girl from New Jersey can be beat out by a rancher boy from North Dakota–simply on geographical preferences.

The fact is, folks, is that this admissions game will never be fair and just and equitable–especially in private colleges, elite or otherwise. They are pretty much free to accept whomever they like, as long as they do not run afoul of civil rights law.  Of course, some are arguing (including in this report) that legacy preferences do discriminate–and should therefore be outlawed.  All I can say is, be careful what you wish for:  elimination of preferences of any type might spell the end of the Rose Bowl, March Madness, and the NCAA.  For starters.  If we base admissions standards solely on academics, then we may as well get rid of the Ohio State marching band:  who will be the tuba player that gets to dot the “i” if there are no preferences for marching tuba players?

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant to Marching Band Members



Reader Interactions


  1. This is nonsense. Firstly, almost no OSUMB sousaphone (please) players major in music. When they apply for admission to, say, Engineering, no one really cares that they play the sousaphone, other than it might show them in their essay to be a better-rounded person. The notion that somehow Engineering is pressured to take in potential sousaphone players on some kind of preference basis is absurd. Furthermore, the OSUMB has several times as many students competing for places in the sousaphone rows as they have spots available. They have no need of any admission preference system to fill them.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I stand corrected on the tuba vs. sousaphone reference. I used to play brass in a marching band, so I should have been more careful (especially when it comes to the fabled OSU Marching Band). I also take your point that my rhetorical flourish may not have reflected the reality for the OSUMB: as the largest university in the nation, OSU hardly has to show preferences for anyone, because everyone seems to show up within its diverse pool. This is not proof, however, that the admissions office does not show preferences of any sort in the process of deciding who gets in and who does not. Obviously, students from Ohio may receive some preference over out-of-state students (except, perhaps, in lean economic times, when the preference may fall to sousaphone players from Maine who can pay the out-of-state tuition). Humor aside, I admit that OSU will neither need nor desire to offer preferential treatment to sousaphone players. But Princeton might. How many sousaphone players do you know who dream of dotting the “i” for Princeton? Plus, if that i-dotting sousaphone player is also a legacy…well, then Princeton has a two-fer!

    Sorry to be silly, but I guess I’m just in one of those moods. Again, thanks for taking the time to write in. I really appreciate–and welcome–the input.

  3. I loved that ‘duh’ comment, Mark!
    I posted the following on a college internet forum:

    Legacy admits is just a PC term for paying for admission. Unless the article author is planning to make up the $ difference, he is tilting at windmills. I suspect that successful litigation to prevent legacy admits would just decrease institutional scholarship money, and do more harm to the meritocracy he wants than we currently have.

    His argument that legacy does not bring money into institutions was not persuasive, because he included public institutions, and private ones that voluntarily, for their own reasons, did away with legacy admits.

    One other comment to the whiny lawyer:

    Exceptional, affordable education is available in the US. Prestige costs money.

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