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October 01, 2009




I don't disagree with you. I believe the leg-up that legacies get in admissions policies should be done away with. But what still bothers me is the way Carey phrased his argument. I don't think we should be thinking in terms of underqualified alumni children, donor children, faculty children, athletes, etc. We should be thinking in terms of getting those questions out of the admissions process. It would have been better if the Princeton application hadn't asked me whether I have any relatives who went here. I mean, maybe I shouldn't have answered the question, and should have just seen what happened. No one would probably have known the difference. But I did. And maybe I'll never know whether I would have gotten into this school without the legacy edge, but I do know that Princeton's legacy edge, when compared to non-legacy middle-class students with college-educated parents, isn't that big. (I unfortunately can't cite data--I serve on the Princeton faculty-student admissions committee and the data I have seen in that capacity is confidential. I swear that's not a cop-out; I just don't want to get in trouble.)

I have acknowledged frequently elsewhere that it's a systemic enormous problem that environmental factors like your socioeconomic class, your parents' educational background, the kind of high school you went to, the neighborhood you lived in, etc., give you huge advantages in Ivy League and peer institution admissions. I am not at all denying that. I'm comparing my case to those of kids with similar family backgrounds simply to push that I'm not inherently underqualified by virtue of being a legacy, and that it shouldn't have to be a horrible thing to go to the same school your mom did.

The conversation about legacy admits seems very personal to me, and it's very hard for me to get away from that. I've had people here on campus and elsewhere who have heard me talk about being the daughter of an alum say to me, "You took a place away from a more deserving, more qualified student." And all I'm saying is, I don't think that's the way these statistical patterns operate, on that kind of personal level, and I don't think it's fair to have to feel guilty about going to the same college as your mom, even if it is Princeton. I don't think its fair to have to feel guilty about going to Princeton. Because I'm middle-class, of educated parents, and therefore uberprivileged in this game, should I have gone to Berkeley instead? Of course not; that's not how this works. But does that mean there's nothing wrong with the system? Of course not either. And that's part of the reason I serve on the admissions committee at school: now that I'm here, I want to do what I can to make this process fairer.

Thanks again for responding, and I think I'm going to take it as read that in future I shouldn't use the time when I missed class because I was too sick to form a cogent argument to try to form cogent arguments while blogging instead. ;)

Greg Kuperberg

They just slipped into success on the basis of exogenous factors. That they should thus be privileged over, say, someone with working class parents who never went to college seems totally perverse to me.

Hi Dylan. Since you went public, we might as well go public with the fact that your dad was my roommate at Harvard. I also have children now, so this issue is relevant to me, although it won't necessarily be Harvard.

I don't see college admission as a reward for virtue in the first place. I see it as a service for students, based on what they want and what they are ready for.

Yes, I assume that our children are better prepared for college because my wife and I are both Harvard-educated. Yes, to the extent that it is true, I don't want anyone to interpret it as their intrinsic virtue as people. So? They still deserve to be challenged in college.

Dylan Matthews

Greg--that's absolutely true. I didn't want to get into the side issue of how intelligence/well-preparedness for college etc. isn't some kind of virtue deserving of reward, as it's something of a side issue to this debate, but I absolutely agree. William Deresiewicz speaks the truth:

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.

Greg Kuperberg

Nonetheless, I think that our children, or anyone's children, are entitled to admission on the basis of academic achievement. It isn't just a question of whether they are "qualified", i.e., meet a base standard. They are more entitled if they are more qualified, if that's what universities want. And universities are entitled to want more qualified students.

There are people who think of educating students beyond a base standard as coals to Newcastle. I don't agree with them.


I think my opinion falls in between yours and Emily's. The truth of the matter is that legacies don't get a huge bump in admissions. The fact that their admit rate is so much higher is because as a group they are better qualified, for the reasons that Emily cites. It would be more valuable to look at the Princeton legacies' admit rate at Harvard. Lets say Harvard and Princeton both have an overall admit rate of 9% (I know that's not true, but bear with this example). Perhaps Princeton's legacy admit rate is 30%. Those same kids (children of Princeton alumni/ae) probably get admitted to Harvard at a lower rate, but not by much (say, 25%). Again, these are NOT real data, but all I'm trying to say is that I'm pretty confident that the admit rate for Princeton legacies applying to Harvard is better than the overall admit rate to Harvard. So one should never just compare admit rates when looking at the legacy edge.

All of that being said, legacies do get a leg up! Sure, those admitted are qualified and do well in their courses. But there are many rejected students who are qualified and would have done well. I'm not talking about the 80-90% who apply and are "qualified" in that they would be able to earn the degree at Harvard. I'm talking about a smaller percentage (maybe 30-40%...again, not real data) who would have an A- average or higher in standard Harvard courses. If legacies appear to fit that profile, they'll likely be admitted. If another kid does, s/he probably has less than a 50/50 chance, and it will depend on what unique skills/experiences/demographics s/he brings to the table. You may wonder why I think so many rejected students would have an A or A- average, whereas the current students' average is lower. Much of it has to do with rounding out the class. You don't want 20 kids from the same location, high school, economic class, race, and skill set. This issue speaks to Greg's comment -- most elite schools care more about diversity (of everything, not just race) than they care about accepting just the top academic achievers. Students will have a more enriching educational experience if their classmates differ from them, and typically striving for diversity means dipping a bit "deeper" in the applicant pool. (I put "deeper" in quotes because I don't necessarily think that having a unique non-academic skill or experience makes you less suited for college than someone who has typical skills and experiences, but better academic qualifications.)

I think the problem that people have with legacies is that it feels "wrong" to give a leg up to students who already have an advantage because their parents are well-educated. You'd rather give that edge to someone who has been disadvantaged in life, and has therefore not yet met his/her potential.

I'm not sure where I stand with legacy admissions. It does seem unfair and misguided from a social justice perspective, but if legacy admissions foster stronger bonds and more alumni dollars which can translate to financial aid for needier students, maybe they're not all bad.

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