When college officials talk about the extra help they provide to applicants who are alumni children (and it’s rare to get them to talk about the topic outside of alumni circles), they tend to say a few things: that the preferences are modest, just an extra “tip” for some well-qualified applicants; that alumni children likely would have had a much greater chance than others of being admitted even without the preference; and that such modest boosts are a small price to pay for the spirit of community and philanthropy created by multigenerational ties to a college.
What if none of that is true?
What if the alumni preferences are significant? What if significant numbers of these alumni children wouldn’t have gotten in anyway? And what if -- contrary to conventional wisdom -- alumni preferences have no impact on alumni giving? Those what-ifs are all true, according to a book being published and released today by the Century Foundation (and distributed by the Brookings Institution Press ). The book is a collection of research articles by scholars, journalists and lawyers arguing that much of what colleges have said over the years about alumni admissions preferences isn’t true -- and that they amount to the book’s title: Affirmative Action for the Rich.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of the volume and an advocate for class-based as opposed to race-based  affirmative action, believes that the time is ripe for American society to re-examine and eliminate alumni preferences. Why now? He noted, and chapters of the book document, that the highly competitive nature of elite college admissions has focused scrutiny on why applicants are or are not admitted. Further, the elimination of affirmative action in several states (a shift Kahlenberg expects to spread), he says, makes it “hard to justify alumni preferences when you have gotten rid of help for minorities.” Finally, he noted, “we are going through a populist moment in this country, where there is anger at illegitimate preferences or unfair advantages for wealthy people, and it seems to me that this issue is one that's plainly unfair and Americans get that.”
The book offers legal reasons -- such as those argued in two law review articles in 2008  -- why alumni favoritism may be vulnerable to legal challenges.
Here is some of the evidence presented in the book:
Daniel Golden of Bloomberg News, who while at The Wall Street Journal documented unfair admissions practices in a series of articles for that newspaper and in a book called The Price of Admission,  provides an overview of data on specific colleges and the extent of preferences. Among his findings:
- The relative advantage of being an alumni child has gone up rapidly in the last 20 years. In 2009, Princeton admitted 41.7 percent of “legacy” applicants (alumni children), 4.5 times the rate for non-legacies. In 1992, the legacy admit rate was only 2.8 times the rate for others.
- In the rare instances when admissions records have been obtained, there is evidence that many alumni children aren’t nearly as qualified as colleges may suggest. In 1990, the Education Department investigated legacy admissions at Harvard University and found comments on applicants' files such as “Dad’s connections signify lineage of more than usual weight,” “Without lineage would be little case. With it, we will keep looking,” and “Not a great profile, but just strong enough numbers and grades to get the tip from lineage.”
- Many elite colleges encourage legacy applicants to use early decision programs that increase their odds of admission. One institution Golden identifies only as a Southern university admits 75 percent of early decision applicants (most of them legacies or siblings of students) but has a 21 percent admission rate for everyone else. The University of Pennsylvania offers “maximum consideration”  for alumni children who apply early decision.
- While many associate legacy admissions with Ivy League and elite Northeastern private colleges, the practice has a much wider reach, with most competitive public universities offering some benefit (frequently consideration on par with in-state applicants for out-of-state legacy applicants, a designation that can mean a huge boost). Further, faith-based institutions tend to have very high rates, Golden writes. He notes that Calvin College tends to have classes that are 40 percent alumni children. And at the University of Notre Dame, nearly one-fourth of students are alumni children -- resulting from a 50 percent admissions rate for such applicants, double the university’s overall rate.
- To those who might wonder if these various examples of favoritism are justified by superior academic performance once enrolled, Golden cites studies suggesting otherwise. He notes a study that found alumni children are “average” academically and “under-perform” those with similar demographic backgrounds who did not receive alumni admissions preferences. A study on Duke legacy admits,  for instance, found that they do not do as well in their first year as do other students (although they tend to improve as time goes on).
Extra Assistance for White People
When the Education Department considered the legality of alumni admissions preferences in 1990, it did so because of the complaints of Asian Americans, who argued that the system was denying spots to their children, who were less likely to be alumni children than were white children. In finding the practice legal, the Education Department noted the absence of evidence that minority alumni children were treated differently from white alumni children. In other words, as long as a black applicant whose parents are rich alumni gets help, it’s OK to provide that help to white applicants whose parents are rich alumni.
While the department acknowledged that, at that time, the advantage overwhelmingly benefited white people, it suggested that this would change over time, given that many elite colleges did not admit critical masses of minority students until the 1960s and so were just beginning to have children old enough to benefit from alumni preferences.
The new book takes on that assumption as well, noting that despite now having numerous cohorts of minority alumni who are old enough to have college-age children, the legacy preference pool isn’t just overwhelmingly white, but disproportionately so. For instance, in an essay by John Brittain of the University of the District of Columbia, and Eric Bloom, a lawyer, they note that in 2002, 17.8 percent of admitted Harvard applicants were either black, Latino or Native American. But only 7.6 percent of legacy admits came from those groups.
They also cite national data showing that of the overall applicant pool for colleges, more than 28 percent come from underrepresented minority groups. But not even 7 percent of the legacy alumni pool come from those groups.
Kahlenberg, in an interview, said that these data are crucial. Many defenders of alumni preferences, he said, argue, “Why pull the rug out just as families of color will benefit?” But he said that the figures show that this isn’t the case -- that alumni preferences are white preferences “and will continue that way far, far into the future.”
The Donor Impact
Many college leaders, of course, justify lots of things they do as part of what’s needed to raise money. And most people assume that alumni admissions contribute to the development effort. But here again, a chapter in the book presents evidence to undercut those assumptions.
Research by Chad Coffman, Tara O'Neil and Brian Starr analyzed the relationship between alumni preferences and donor levels. A key fact is that a minority of elite colleges either have never used alumni preferences (California Institute of Technology, for instance) or at some point abandoned them (Texas A&M University, which did so in conjunction with eliminating affirmative action). Coffman, O’Neil and Starr found that there is no statistically significant difference in giving rates between comparably wealthy alumni at institutions with and without preferences.
Only when wealth is not controlled in the comparisons is there a statistically significant difference -- and that’s the relevant factor, they write.
“These combined results suggest that higher alumni giving at top institutions that employ legacy preferences is not a result of the preference policy exerting influence on alumni behavior, but rather the policy allows elite schools to over-select from their own wealthy alumni,” they write. “In other words, the preference policy effectively allows elite schools essentially to discriminate based on socioeconomic status by accepting their own wealthy alumni rather than basing admissions on merit alone.”
The book notes the real possibility that colleges that eliminated alumni preferences might still keep some advantage for the children of wealthy donors (Texas A&M is an example of an institution that has done so).
Kahlenberg said that would be preferable to the present situation -- both in that it would involve fewer people getting an advantage, and in that the rationale would be clear.
“If preferences were limited to a small number of extremely wealthy families, that would be a step forward from what we have now,” he said. "It would expose the program for exactly what it is about -- cash. This is a deal in which donations are made in exchange for admissions. It would be seen as more unseemly than the current arrangement, which has the patina of encouraging family ties and community building. The sordid nature would be out in the open.”
What the Associations Say
The National Association for College Admission Counseling has not included any statements specifically about alumni preferences in the association's Statement of Principles of Good Practice. But one statement does call for a focus on individual (and presumably not parental) qualifications. That statement says: "Members will evaluate students on the basis of their individual qualifications and strive for inclusion of all members of society in the admission process."
John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (which includes both fund raisers and alumni affairs officials), said in an interview that he had not seen the book yet and wanted to study its findings. He said he was concerned, based on the way the book is being promoted, about some of its premises.
"Do we know in fact that the greater admission rate is solely a function of greater preference for those students, or in fact that a larger number of those students met the admissions standards?" he asked. Lippincott also said that alumni children may engage in "greater self-selection" -- knowing more about the institutions than the average student -- and thus may be more likely to apply early decision or to make a well-informed decision about their ability to get in.
Further, he said that it was unfair to categorize all alumni -- even alumni of elite institutions -- as rich, as the title of the book implies. Many alumni of these institutions, while better off than the public at large, are in fact middle class, he said, and some are not even comfortably middle class. And that means their children aren't rich either.
Even if the data on fund raising are correct, he said, there are many institutions that believe their alumni preferences have contributed to development success -- including "fund raising that has produced scholarships for low-income students," he said. But Lippincott also said it was unfair to suggest that colleges with alumni preferences are only trying to raise money. Enrolling alumni children "contributes to the sense of community, to the traditions of an institution, to loyalty expressed in ways other than fund raising, to engaged alumni," he said.
Where Lippincott gives the book credit is for promoting a discussion of these issues. "There is a legitimate public policy question here," he said, just as there are debates over the use of standardized tests or the relative weight that should go to any number of admissions factors. "Institutions that believe these programs contribute should have a sincere and thoughtful discussion" of the practice, and should be able to document that alumni preferences yield the results they are designed to promote, he said.
Asked if he thinks many colleges have had such discussions, Lippincott said, "I think they should have them if they haven't."
What About Athletes?
Kahlenberg now has two books about admissions preferences – The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and this new one – both questioning forms of preferences. Should there be a third in the works, on athletes? Recruited athletes in Division I programs gain a huge boost in the admissions process and (in revenue sports) have mixed records of academic success.
It turns out Kahlenberg isn’t that worried about that issue. "I have less concern about athletic preferences because they are connected in some sense to how hard a student works at developing his or her talents, whereas preferences based on legacy have absolutely nothing based on the merit of an individual.”
In the end, he’s willing to let colleges reward different kinds of talent, but not lineage. “With a legacy preference, we are advantaging the already advantaged,” he said.