Creating a Legacy of Fairness in Admissions

Low-income students face many more obstacles to earning a college degree than affluent ones. Preferences for alumni children shouldn’t be among them, argues Peter McPherson.

March 21, 2019
 
 
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Public universities have a public purpose, including serving students of all backgrounds. That starts with an admissions process rooted in fairness. This commitment to fairness is central to the identity of public universities and their mission to improve the lives of their students and society at large. Preferential admissions decisions for relatives of alumni -- known as legacy admissions -- are not consistent with this commitment to fairness.

A recent poll showed that only 6 percent of admissions directors at public universities said that legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions. Nevertheless, it’s a practice that is at odds with public universities’ commitment to fairness.

It is true that alumni are often public universities’ strongest advocates because their lives have been changed by the experiences they had on campus. Graduates’ support and loyalty enhance a university’s ability to convey its value to the community, state and the country. But universities can have these strong ties with their alumni without providing preferential treatment in their admissions decisions.

At a time when many public universities have more applicants than available seats, every admissions decision matters. Changing the practice of legacy admissions is no exception.

One of the most striking figures about college graduates is that less than 10 percent of children from households in the lowest income quartile earn a degree, compared to more than 80 percent of those from the highest income quartile. Clearly, much more than 10 percent of low-income students are qualified to go to college and earn a degree. The problem is they face many more obstacles to earning a college degree than their more affluent peers. Legacy preferences shouldn’t be one of them.

Over the past few years, colleges, universities, philanthropic organizations and many others have prioritized helping these young people achieve the dream of a college education that results in a degree. A set of organizations and initiatives, including our own Center for Public University Transformation, have emerged to cultivate and spread ideas on how to best help low-income, first-generation and other students succeed. But efforts and initiatives to support first-generation students and others cannot be fully realized if practices that give preferential treatment to those from families of multigenerational college graduates continue to exist.

Moving away from legacy preferences will not create a perfect system. That’s because one doesn’t exist. While fairness is a core principle for public universities, there is no easy admissions formula. Universities must weigh the array of circumstances behind applicants’ experiences and achievements. That’s a complex task.

All Americans were appalled last week by the revelation of schemes to defraud universities and game the admissions process. Though those cases are entirely unrelated to legacy admissions, the renewed attention on university admissions presents an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about the fairness of all admissions practices. While there is nothing illegal about giving preference in admissions decisions to the children and grandchildren of alumni, that doesn't make it right.

Challenges with admissions decisions did not start yesterday, and they won’t be gone tomorrow. But there is a renewed urgency to address inequities and for public universities to advance their public purpose.

Bio

Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. He served as president of Michigan State University from 1993 to 2004.

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