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Just To Be Clear: We Don’t Do Legacy by Chris Peterson SM '13

anatomy of a WTF in the WSJ

A few students pointed me towards this piece in the Wall Street Journal about whether or not colleges should consider legacy in the admissions process.

For those of you not familiar with the practice, “legacy admissions” means preferring the children of alumni in the admissions process. Why would schools do this? For the money, mostly, because if you make your alumni happy by admitting their kids, they might be more likely to give you money. Advocates of legacy admission, like advocates of “development cases”, will argue that this makes the school a better place for the rest of the students by allowing them to build great labs and dorms and offer fantastic financial aid and everything else. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former President of GWU, made this case in support of legacy admissions, along with citing certain fringe benefits like “bridging” the generations by forming a sort of intergenerational club.

Meanwhile, Rick Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation characterized legacy admission as a “special privilege for the advantaged.” For you to receive legacy preference, it means your parents, and perhaps grandparents, went to a particular college. This means you come from a long line of educated people, who had the advantages of learning, who had the means to go to college in an era before broadly accessible student loans and financial aid. It means you are benefitting from work others have done. Kahlenberg argues that this is fundamentally unfair. Selective college admissions is a zero sum game: every applicant admitted takes a space which could have gone to another student. Preferring a student whose parents attended a college not only takes away a spot from an equal or better student, it specifically takes away a spot from an equal or better student who overcame more by not having the advantages accrued by prior generations.

Kahlenberg is exactly right, except for one thing: he mentions MIT as one of the schools that practices legacy admissions, and we do not do anything of the kind.

This is something I thought we’d been pretty clear about. Mollie blogged about it back in 2006. Our institutional research website says, quite specifically, that “alumni relations” are “not considered.” And I can tell you, from having sat on countless committees, that we simply don’t care if your parents (or aunt, or grandfather, or third cousin) went to MIT. In fact, one of the things most likely to elicit a gigantic facepalm is when a student namedrops some incredibly attenuated connection because they think it is going to help them get into MIT.

So where did this idea come from? After a little academic archaelogy I think I’ve figured it out.

In an issue brief written by Kahlenberg, the claim that MIT preferred legacies was cited (at 39) to “An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preference“, which appears to be a chapter (written by Bloomberg editor Dan Golden) from Century Foundation’s book on legacy admissions. That chapter doesn’t actually contain any data, but instead itself cites (at 84) “No Distinctions except Those Which Merit Originates: The Unlawfulness of Legacy Preferences in Public and Private Universities“, by Shadowen and Tulante, 49 Santa Clara L. Rev. 51 (2009).

Here, finally, we hit the bottom of the citation hole, as Shadowen and Tulante, using almost exactly the same language later appropriated by Golden and Kahlenberg, write that “We also found data showing that alumni of CalTech, which grants no preferences, donated $71 million in 2007, versus $77 million donated in 2006 by alumni of legacy- granting MIT.” (emphasis mine) Here they cite (at 371) the “MIT Reports to the President (2005-2006)“. But alas: while this report does indeed demonstrate MIT’s alumni donated $77 million in 2006, it says nothing about legacy admissions.

It appears, as best I can tell, that Shadowen and Tulante were misinformed as to whether MIT granted legacy and included the claim in the sentence. When they cited this sentence to the President’s Report, Golden and Kahlenberg (or their research assistants) must have thought the citation authoritatively described not only the donation numbers but also legacy practices. The idea that MIT granted legacy, in other words, appeared entirely out of thin air during the research and writing process. It’s legacy admissions all the way down.

As a former law school research assistant (if you couldn’t tell) I know these things sometimes happen accidentally. While it is disappointing, I don’t have any hard feelings to any of the folks involved. It is, indeed, unusual for a school like MIT to have no preference for legacies. But one of the things that makes MIT special is the fact that it is meritocratic to its cultural core. In fact, I think if we tried to move towards legacy admissions we might face an alumni revolt. There is only one way into (and out of) MIT, and that’s the hard way. The people here value that.

I want to reiterate that I agree wholeheartedly with everything Mr. Kahlenberg said about why legacy admissions are bad. I personally would not work for a college which had legacy admission because I am not interested in simply reproducing a multigenerational lineage of educated elite. And if anyone in our office ever advocated for a mediocre applicant on the basis of their “excellent pedigree” they would be kicked out of the committee room.

So to be clear: if you got into MIT, it’s because you got into MIT. Simple as that.