Yesterday’s announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted an appeal from a rejected white applicant to the University of Texas-Austin reminds me that every time the constitutionality of affirmative action returns to the issues agenda, one question is always left out:
Why didn’t the applicant suing a university for accepting minorities with a less impressive record of academic achievement also or instead sue the university for discriminating in favor of athletes and legacies? Legacies, for those not up on academic admissions parlance, are students whose parents previously went to or have contributed money to the university.
The unfairness of lowering standards to accept athletes to an institution dedicated to intellectual achievement and professional training seems fairly obvious. I can understand giving a break on the SAT or grades to a national chess champion or the winner of a science fair, but what does sports have to do with the mission of higher education?
And yet where are the lawsuits claiming that the university acted illegally in preferring a kid with a 1000 on the SATs who can throw a football 70 yards through a tire to someone with 1100 on the college boards who has no extra-curricular activities?
The advantage given to legacies is even more unfair, because it is a major part of the rigidity in the college system that necessitated affirmative action in the first place.
A quick search of “college admissions legacies” will reveal the oft-told history of legacy preferences, which Ivy and other colleges began to use after World War I when their objective criteria were leading to the admission of too many Jews. Today, Ivy League and private colleges give from 10% to 15% legacy preference, but some give as many as 30% of all acceptances to legacy applicants. Overall, many more students are admitted as legacy preferences than are admitted through affirmative action programs. What’s more, polls find that 75% of all Americans are opposed to legacy preferences.
Yet no one sues universities because they are giving preferences to people whose parents graduated from or gave money to the school.
Correction. In his 2010 analysis of everything that’s wrong with legacy preferences in The Chronicle of Higher Education, educational policy guru Richard D. Kahlenberg cites a losing 1970’s case filed against legacy preferences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The problem was that the plaintiff included legacies in a hodgepodge of discrimination complaints, including discrimination for being an out-of-state student. Her SAT scores were 850, uncommonly low for an in-state or out-of-state UNC student both back then and now.
Kahlenberg summarizes the compelling legal argument against legacies at both public and private universities, based on the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He also demolishes the argument that universities need legacy admissions to keep the donations rolling into the university coffers. Analysis reveals that people give about the same to their alma mater or other universities with or without the legacy factor.
The higher the university on the food chain, the more the legacy admission undercuts the ambitions of other competent but less connected candidates. Let’s face it, the more important the job, the more likely it will be filled by an Ivy or Ivy-like (e.g., Stanford or Northwestern) graduate, and if not an Ivy, a public Ivy (e.g., U of Washington or UNC) or other prestigious school. The college educated earn more in general, so no matter how you slice it, legacies come from wealthier families on average than non-legacies at virtually every university.
When you’re better off, you are more likely to have special lessons, more likely to travel abroad, more likely to participate in national youth competitions, more likely to take an SAT prep course and more likely to live the lifestyle behind the cultural assumptions of the SATs. Affirmative action is one of the ways that colleges can level the playing field.
I’m not saying that once legacy admissions are ended we won’t need affirmative action anymore. What I’m saying is that the legacy system reflects the subtle action of institutional racism and is one more reason we need affirmation action. By the way, we’ll know that we won’t need affirmation action anymore when the rate of poverty among African-Americans or the average wage of African-Americans is about what it is for everyone else.
As others have pointed out, the Supreme Court decision to take the appeal is especially disturbing in light of its 2003 ruling upholding affirmative action. In that ruling, the Supreme Court laid down some affirmative action guidelines for universities and suggested that the high court shouldn’t revisit the issue for another 25 years. Of course that was before Roberts and Alito joined the court.
Most of the plaintiffs in these affirmative action lawsuits are middle class and upper middle class whites. That leaves us with the fact that none of these fighters for equality ever thought to take on legacies. There are certainly more legacies than there are affirmative action students, and the legacies tend to include more of the children of those people who have taken money from the middle class through the economic and tax policies of the past 30 years.
It’s quite puzzling. The only answer that I have is that it’s another manifestation of the racism that has distorted the politics and social policy of this country since its inception.