Racial Preferences more Harmful than Legacy Policies in College Admissions

April 2004

Since this is Black History Month, I thought it might make sense to take a look at the latest controversy surrounding affirmative action ─ that is affirmative action for rich white people. That's what opponents call legacy admissions, the practice of giving the relatives of alumni and other big boosters special consideration when they apply to a college.

With little public debate, the country is moving quickly to erase the practice from higher education, particularly at public universities. Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Harvard legacy, is pushing legislation requiring schools receiving federal money to disclose the race and income data of all legacy applicants. Kennedy's intent is to call attention to the fact that affluent white kids benefit from preferential treatment more than poor black kids do under conventional affirmative action programs.

This comes in the wake of Texas A&M's decision to cancel its legacy preferences last month. Since the school no longer offers special treatment to minorities, critics argued, it shouldn't offer special treatment to anybody.

Being the child or grandchild of an alum was worth up to four points out of a possible 100 points in the school's admissions system, according to the Houston Chronicle. In a given year around 2,000 applicants earned "legacy points," but the vast majority of these students didn't need them to qualify for admittance.

But a few did. In 2003, 312 white legacies were admitted who otherwise wouldn't have been without the family connection. The year before, 321 white legacies were admitted. The school was quick to point out that the legacy program also admits blacks and Hispanics at about the same percentage rates. In 2003, six blacks and 27 Hispanics were admitted as legacies who wouldn't have been accepted otherwise.

Texas State Rep. Lon Burnam is furious about the practice. He's been pushing a law to ban the practice for a while. He told the Houston Chronicle that it's a "program that reflects the past, meaning the institutional racism of the 20th century, rather than the future, which will be majority African-American and Hispanic."

At the national level, rage at legacy policies has been running white hot for a while now, mostly as a way to deflect attacks at racial preferences that are typically more generous, pervasive and, needless to say, more popular among liberals.

John Edwards has made legacy programs one of the many things he's angry about (but in a rakishly good-looking way). He calls the policy "a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy."

Now, personally, I don't care very much if schools drop their legacy policies. But let's be honest about what's really going on here and what isn't.

First of all, the ones who benefit most from legacy policies are the schools and the other non-rich students. The parents of legacies tend to be the biggest financial supporters of schools. If, all of the sudden, these boosters can't get their kids accepted, a major revenue stream will dry up or at least shrink. Millionaires, after all, are less likely to build libraries for schools that reject their kids. That means tuition will go up, disproportionately hurting poor and minority kids.

Meanwhile, the children of rich, well-connected people are going to be OK because, well, they're rich. But poor parents are going to have more trouble getting their kids the best education possible.

Fine. If we think the ideal of merit should reign supreme, by all means let's ban legacy preferences.

But this isn't about merit. After all, Ted Kennedy isn't proposing that we track the financial data of kids who benefit from racial preferences (an idea proposed by Peter Kirsanow, a Republican appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and championed by Stuart Taylor of the National Journal). If we did that, we'd discover that minorities benefit far more than legacies do and that racial preferences often go to upper-middle-class, not underprivileged, blacks.

Moreover, the logic supporting the anti-legacy case simply makes no sense. Most people mock the rich kids who get daddy's help. If legacy preferences are bad, how does that make preferences for blacks good? You can't defend one bad policy by pointing out that there are other similarly bad policies.

Besides, and this is what we should remember during Black History Month, the two policies really aren't that similar. Race is different. America fought a Civil War largely over race. The civil rights movement, which we hear so much about this month and every other month, was morally compelling precisely because it said we should judge people by the content of their character not the color of their skin.

If schools want to have preferences for short people, gays or nerds that may be good or bad policy, but it's not "institutional racism." Assigning points based upon skin color is. At least in my book.