Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Legacy admission for and against diversity

According to the April 24th issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, this year's admission rate—7.29%—for the class of 2017 was their lowest ever. Rest assured, that is behind Stanford at 5.7%, Harvard at 5.8% and Yale at 6.7%. Those are low odds, and any advantage is clearly welcome. That's one reason why the Fisher v. Texas case before the Supreme Court over the use of affirmative action in college admissions is so compelling. Equally notable, though, is the fact that children of Princeton alumni (so-called legacies) make up 9.7% of admitted students, compared to 9.5% in the previous year. Is a given university merely recording their legacy student demographic or is it using it to create an artificially higher (or perhaps lower) percentage of legacies in their student body?

It's surprising to me that legacy admission is going up (in terms of the percentage of the total) in light of the recent rhetoric arguing against it. Namely, the argument goes that legacy admissions are primarily good for bringing in money (from happy alumni parents), and they keep the demographics of a given campus tuned to that of a generation ago. The former is presumably good for university finances but some argue that it comes at the price of academic quality. The latter has the potential of maintaining the demographics on par with a much less diverse student population of yesteryear, and some argue has the effect of anti-affirmative action policies. For these and other related reasons, there has been significant opposition against legacy admission (including op-eds in the Princeton Alumni Weekly). Yet at Princeton (and likely other places), legacy admission is actually increasing, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, the April 24th issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, also reported that 48.4% of the admitted student class identified themselves as students of color. This suggests that legacy admission may not be entirely coupled to the demographic distribution of the entering class.

So where do you stand on legacy admission? It likely depends on whether or not you are a parent, and whether or not your children stand to benefit from it. Like politics, this can be very local. In my case, my son would obviously stand to lose if legacy admission were to recede. Here also lies a bit of irony; he would be a student-of-color admission. That is, just as the diversity complexion of undergraduate campuses is starting to reflect the broader demographics of this county, is this really the time to remove the alumni privilege of legacy admission?

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