Harvard’s ‘Legacy’ Preferences Are a National Disgrace

Students on the campus of Harvard University in 2009 (File photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Opponents of affirmative action should be twice as mad about this.

The lawsuit against Harvard claiming it discriminates against Asian applicants may or may not succeed. But even if it fails, it has done the great public service of revealing how the school’s admissions process works behind the scenes.

The school was forced to turn its admissions data over to an expert witness for the plaintiffs: Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, who analyzed the data and found that Asian applicants are far less likely to be admitted than white applicants with the same academic credentials. And now, using numbers the suit has made publicly available, Arcidiacono and two co-authors have written a disturbing report laying out how legacy, athlete, and similar preferences warp the Harvard admissions process. Much like race-based affirmative action, these policies admit hundreds of students each year who would not be accepted on the basis of their academic records. And each of Harvard’s preferences twists the school’s racial balance in a different way.

The report is a compelling illustration of how a prestigious, progressive institution departs from meritocracy to reward the wealthy and connected. There may be little the government can do about non-racial preferences, considering Harvard is a private school and there’s no law against these forms of discrimination. But healthy doses of public shame are warranted, especially given how strongly Harvard and similar Ivy League schools control the pipeline into the top echelons of American society.

The authors’ data cover the classes that applied in the autumns of 2009 through 2014 and are limited to applicants from within the U.S. By my math (based on their table 2), “LDCs” — legacies whose parents also went to Harvard; those on the dean’s list, often thanks to donations by relatives; and children of faculty and staff — were about a fifth of the students Harvard admitted during this time. Recruited athletes were another tenth. As the authors note, while it’s hardly identified with jock culture in the public imagination, Harvard for some reason fields 42 Division I sports teams.

In the authors’ analysis, legacies experience several times higher odds of admission than do otherwise similar applicants from less favored lineages. Those on the dean’s list are especially preferred. Recruited athletes have an astounding 86 percent chance of getting in despite relatively weak academic records. (Such strong athlete preferences are why the recent admissions scandal involved bribing coaches at several schools.)

In the authors’ estimation, most athletes and LDCs (together, “ALDCs”) at Harvard would not have gotten in based on their other credentials. Combining some more of their numbers (from table 10), I find that about 70 percent would not have made it. Paired with the fact that about 30 percent of students admitted to Harvard are ALDCs, this suggests that roughly a fifth of Harvard undergrads are there because of who their relatives are, or because they’re good at sports.

There’s a racial component to these boosts, too. The headline result from the paper, featured prominently in the abstract, is this:

Among white admits, over 43% are ALDC. Among admits who are African American, Asian American, and Hispanic, the share is less than 16% each. Our model of admissions shows that roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits [i.e., about a third of all white admits] would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs.

In other words, ALDC preferences are largely an affirmative-action program for certain privileged subsets of white people. One is almost tempted by the idea that Harvard’s preferences for underrepresented minorities might be justified simply to level the scales a bit.

But the numbers don’t really support that argument. The fact that a third of white Harvard students get in via ALDC preferences doesn’t mean a third of whites are occupying spaces that would otherwise go to the underrepresented minority groups that receive racial preferences. Without preferences, many white legacies would be replaced by white non-legacies — or by Asians, the overrepresented minority at the heart of the aforementioned lawsuit.

Indeed, as this table shows, the number of white admissions would fall by just 4 percent without legacy preferences and 6 percent without athlete preferences. (Though it would fall more if both were eliminated at once, of course, and unfortunately this leaves out the smaller D and C categories in ALDC.) In both scenarios, the largest number of abandoned seats go to Asians.

The final row of the table also shows us what happens if legacy, athlete, and racial preferences are removed. In that case, whites actually receive 3 percent more Harvard slots than they do currently, because in today’s system they lose more from racial preferences than they gain from the others. Asian admissions rise more than 50 percent. Admissions crater dramatically for both blacks and Hispanics, falling more than two-thirds for the former and 40 percent for the latter. So no, race-based affirmative action does not merely balance out the racially disproportionate impact of legacy preferences. It’s just a different distortion with a different, and more drastic, racial effect.

But there is a strong connection between the two nonetheless. The argument against affirmative action has always been that we should judge people as individuals, and the work of Arcidiacono et al. shows that these other preferences do immense damage at the individual level. They let in hundreds of students each year simply because of who their parents are or how well they can throw a ball (or whatever one does to score in lacrosse) — and every preferred student who’s admitted excludes someone more qualified. Worse, these preferences exist not as an attempt, however misguided, to redress America’s reprehensible racial sins but merely to heap more donations on top of Harvard’s $37 billion endowment and to cultivate an amorphous sense of community based around sports teams and family members who attended the school decades ago.

Harvard is widely considered the single best school in the country. It sends its graduates out to influence all of U.S. society’s major institutions; all the current Supreme Court justices attended law school at either Harvard or Yale. And yet a substantial fraction of people walking around with prestige-soaked Harvard degrees were not given this opportunity on the basis of their academic record or potential.

The government may not be able to stop this. But the rest of us could stand to be a little less bowled over by the Harvard credential. And those of us who detest racial preferences should despise legacy preferences twice as much.

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