Recently Johns Hopkins University announced that over the past decade it has quietly phased out legacy preferences in admission. Since 2009 the percentage of legacies at Hopkins in the incoming freshman class has dropped from 12.5 percent to 3.5 percent. During the same period, the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants enrolling at Johns Hopkins has risen from 9 percent to 19.1 percent.
That news raises several interesting questions. First, why wasn’t the announcement more newsworthy? Legacy preference has long been a controversial practice in college admission, and following release of data on how being an ALDC (the "L" stands for legacy) at Harvard University significantly improves a student’s chances of admission, having another highly selective university ending preference for legacies would seem to be major news. But in an admissions landscape where at one end of the spectrum parents are going to jail for fraudulently passing their children off as water polo prodigies and at the other colleges are scheming to find creative ways to poach students from competitors, the bar has been raised for what qualifies as newsworthy in college admission today.
The second question is whether Johns Hopkins’s move is the beginning of a movement or a one-off event. That question is posed every time a prominent national university announces a major change in admission policies or practices, whether it be Harvard, Princeton University and the University of Virginia ending early decision in 2006 (UVA revived ED this year) or the University of Chicago going test optional a couple of years ago. Those hoping for a movement are usually left disappointed.
The third question is why Johns Hopkins waited to announce the change in policy until it was a fait accompli. The principle of transparency would seem to suggest that colleges should preach what they practice, confidently and even proudly asserting what counts and doesn’t count in the admissions process. By going to a “soft opening,” Johns Hopkins avoided a potentially disruptive debate within the campus community and also accumulated data to support the wisdom of the policy change before it had been publicly announced.
Or maybe this is a case of boiling frog syndrome at work. Boiling frog syndrome is the disputed idea that a frog placed in water that is heated gradually until it is boiling will not panic and attempt to escape. It is a metaphor for the danger of change so gradual that it is not recognized until too late.
Boiling frog syndrome has been invoked on issues ranging from climate change to the ethics of cooking live lobsters. In 2015 presidential candidate Jeb Bush put an interesting twist on the metaphor when he described Bernie Sanders’s free college proposal as similar to boiling crabs, lulling the public to ignore creeping government control over our lives. Given Johns Hopkins’s location, that’s perhaps a more appropriate example (or crustacean) for what the delay in announcing the policy shift did to alums hoping to send their children to their alma mater.
Back in September a New York Times editorial called legacy preferences in college admission “an affirmative action program for successful families” and, quoting from an "Ethical College Admissions" column, “a form of property transfer from one generation to another.” That editorial cited 2011 research that showed that legacy applicants at 30 of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities had a 23 percent higher likelihood of admission. For “primary” legacies, those with a parent who attended rather than a more distant relative, the probability was twice that.
Of course there are legacies and there are legacies. At many institutions preference for alumni children is based less on the alumni connection itself than on how active and financially supportive the alum is. I have heard of one college where legacy status in admission comes into play only for alumni making six-figure annual gifts.
Encouraging alumni donations is one of the common justifications for legacy preferences. That is less a concern for Johns Hopkins after alumnus and current presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg donated $1.8 billion to Hopkins in November 2018, the largest gift ever to higher education but a drop in the bucket compared with what he is likely to spend on his campaign for the Democratic nomination. Hopkins president Ronald Daniels, who described legacy preference as “a very peculiar institution” in an interview with The Washington Post, has stated that the change in policy has not impacted the number or amounts of alumni gifts beyond Bloomberg’s, and that a number of alumni see the abandonment of the policy as a positive step for the university.
The relationship between legacy preference and alumni giving is far from clear. A study of alumni giving at 100 top universities (using the U.S. News ranking), published in Richard Kahlenberg’s book Affirmative Action for the Rich, found “no statistically significant evidence that legacy preferences impact total alumni giving,” but cite a number of studies with conflicting conclusions. Certainly places like the California Institute of Technology and a number of leading public universities give no preference for legacy applicants, without apparent damage to the institution.
The other argument for legacy preference is the family loyalty argument, which could be a thinly veiled version of the alumni giving argument. But is a college community a family, and if so, does loyalty outweigh other institutional values like equity, fairness and serving the public interest? At what point does loyalty to family endanger the strength of the family by becoming incestuous rather than expanding and strengthening the family bloodline?
Providing preferences to legacies in admission can seem more like passing on a club membership from parent to child. And if highly selective universities are correct that legacy applicants are generally strong and competitive, then they shouldn’t need preferential treatment to earn admission.
Last week there was an interesting new twist on the debate over legacy preferences. In a new paper, Raj Chetty from Harvard and four colleagues (John Friedman from Brown, Emmanuel Saez and Danny Yagan from UC Berkeley, and Nicholas Turner from the Federal Reserve Board) argue that legacy preferences should not be ended but rather extended to other groups.
Their paper, “Income Segregation and Intergenerational Mobility Across Colleges in the United States,” does not deal with legacy preferences per se, but rather the “missing middle” socioeconomically in “Ivy-plus” colleges (the eight Ivies plus Chicago, Duke, MIT and Stanford). While I haven’t yet read (and may not be capable of understanding) the entire paper, one of their suggestions for achieving broader socioeconomic balance in the student bodies at selective colleges is providing preference equal to that given to legacy applicants.
How would that occur? By providing a boost in SAT scores of 160 points to low-income applicants and 64 to 128 points to middle-income applicants, a thumb on the scale the authors see as comparable to the boost given to legacy applicants. The authors argue that the Ivy-plus institutions could increase the percentage of low-income applicants threefold, from 4 percent to 12 percent, and the percentage of middle-income students 10 percentage points, from 28 percent to 38 percent.
So rather than end legacy preference, extend it to nonlegacies. It’s an interesting idea, deserving of more scrutiny. I’m wary of college admission analyses and proposals that use SAT scores alone as a measure, and I’d rather see discussion about rethinking what we value and what we measure than using the “thumb on the scale” approach. I’m also not sure we need a college admission version of the employee discount ads run by Chevrolet every Christmas.