Legacy Preference Again...

The Daily reported yesterday on a new study on legacy preference in college admissions. This study (performed by Michael Hurwitz, a grad student from the Stanford of the East) was notable because of the advanced statistical methods its author used to eliminate confounding variables, such as college selectivity and some personal characteristics of applicants. The author reported that “traditional analytic techniques underestimate the true impact of legacy status” and found that “the odds of admission are multiplied by a factor 3.13 due to legacy status.”

As vigilant readers of Fiat Lux might remember, I took up this issue in a piece last quarter, and again in a response post after receiving several angry comments. So what does this new information add to the discussion?

First of all, I think that this study’s attempt to control for more confounding factors is incredibly valuable. College admission is a horrifically subjective process, and I doubt that any study on the topic will ever be truly complete or absolutely accurate. Still, this particular study is helpful because it addresses one of the toughest questions about legacy preference: are legacies admitted to Stanford in greater numbers than non-legacies simply because they *are *legacies, or are they overrepresented because children of Stanford graduates tend to be disproportionately well-educated and well-off? While the evidence is far from conclusive, I’m inclined to think that this study demonstrates that legacy admission for legacy’s sake is more common than most of us would like to think.

Finally, I’d like to discuss some comments made to the Daily by Dean of Undergraduate Admission Richard Shaw:

The reality of this is that the majority of students that are legacies do not get in.

This is essentially a meaningless statement. Stanford’s applicant pool is so large that you would be hard-pressed to find a decent-sized population (varsity athletes, minority applicants, valedictorians, whatever) that does send a majority of its applicants to the Farm come September.

In looking at our quantitative measures, our legacy enrollees or admits tend to be stronger than the median of the admitted class… It shatters another perception that unqualified or less qualified students are getting into Stanford because they are sons or daughters of parents who have come before them.

If this is really true (and I don’t doubt that it is), then why do we even need legacy preference? Why give an extra leg up to a population of students who are already more likely to be admitted? What’s more, the issue here isn’t so much that “unqualified or less qualified” students are getting a free pass. We all know that Stanford attracts gazillions of highly qualified applicants, and that the admissions process basically consists of finding some reason (any reason) to prefer one superstar student over another. What bothers me is that legacy status, which I consider essentially irrelevant and perhaps even discriminatory in practice, is being used as that “tie-breaker” factor. And as I mentioned in my previous posts on this issue, I am concerned that the continuing presence of this policy has negative effects on the coherence and strength of the Stanford community.

And, in fact, the children of the first generation students here now may very well look forward to the opportunity to give their kids a chance to apply and be competitive for a position in the class.

No, Dean Shaw, I must respectfully disagree. I, as a first-generation Stanford student (and, on one side of the family, only a second-generation *college *student) do not want my children to get any extra advantage in the application process. I want them to earn their way, to learn the value of hard work and motivation, instead of  relying heavily on whatever advantages I may manage to accumulate. An impossible dream, perhaps- given my chosen career and likely future salary, I will probably give my children a substantial educational advantage simply by virtue of the socioeconomic environment in which I will raise them. But I’m still going to try my damnedest to make it happen.

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