Response to Comments on Legacy Preference

Boy, did I hit a nerve.

In my most recent post, I linked to a few articles arguing in favor of eliminating legacy preference in university admissions, and added that I personally agreed with this position. I’ve already gotten quite a few comments- on the post and in person, and on Facebook- so I thought I would write a follow-up to establish what I was not saying and answer some common arguments against my position.

First of all, it was not my intention to insult my fellow students who are “legacies;” neither did I mean to imply that they did not belong at Stanford, nor that they don’t “work hard, like everyone else.” As much as I hate to use this phrase, some of my best friends are legacies, and I know first-hand that many legacy admits do incredible things here. I can completely understand the emotions that this conversation stirs up, and the feeling on the part of legacy students that my position- or any discussion of this issue- is an attack on their qualifications. Admissions is a sensitive topic, and Stanford students of all stripes constantly struggle with the feeling that “they don’t belong here.” But I must stress that in discussing this policy, I am not out to attack anyone or put them down, or to insinuate that “some students here don’t deserve admission.” I simply don’t know enough about any one student’s application, qualifications, or circumstances to do that, and neither does anyone outside of the Admissions Office. And even if I did have that information, I would never be so rude as to air my thoughts in such a public forum.

The simple fact is that no one on this campus outside of Montag Hall knows exactly how Stanford selects its students. It’s a mystery. I’ve had several half-serious conversations in which my friends and I have concluded that a Magic 8-Ball might be involved. How else can the counselors distinguish between the thousands of applicants who, in terms of grades, classes, and test scores, are essentially equally qualified to attend Stanford? Several people have argued that we have to pick some metric by which to select the 1600-odd lucky ones, and it might as well be legacy preference, which arguably comes with financial benefits for the university.

Now if I knew how the Admissions Office did its business, I could delve into specific recommendations and suggestions. But I don’t. What I do know is that the studies I linked to in my first post have demonstrated, at least to some small degree of certainty, that legacy is often used as much more than a tie-breaker. I also believe that allowing the use of legacy preference will put an incredible strain on admissions staff, which might lead to abuse of the policy. Take, for example, this quote from the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions in 2003 (from a SURJ article I linked to in my first post):

Despite presenting a number of justifications for legacy, Jean exhibited an unexpectedly high degree of caution on the matter. She identified specific instances where Stanford’s legacy policy came uncomfortably close to com- promising the integrity of her position. She cited a specific example, stating, “One of my most agonizing decisions was when the chairman of the board of trustees had a grandson in the applicant pool and I couldn’t in good conscience admit him. His father was a Stanford alum—he was a legacy—and his grand- father was chairman of the board! That was really, really hard. It’s a slippery slope” (Fetter, Interview). Legacy policies areat the root of these dilemmas.

Another common argument was that legacy status is actually a good predictor of academic success, since legacy students are more likely to have been exposed to a home environment that valued education and had the resources to provide a good one. There’s some truth to this, of course; most of the characteristics that make a good Stanford student are “heritable” to some degree- not in the technical sense of the term, but in that they’re susceptible to heavy influence by genes and early environment, both of which are affected by the educational achievements of one’s parents. This is a strong and logical argument, but I have several problems with it.

First of all, I think that Stanford’s application already provides so much information about a candidate’s intellectual strengths that the legacy test is unnecessary. Yes, legacy status can tell us something about how likely an applicant is to succeed academically, but the test scores, grades, descriptions of extracurricular involvement, essays, and teacher recs that we already have can tell us something concrete about the degree to which an applicant is succeeding academically. And I might add that we already consider factors of life circumstances independent of any legacy preference.

Second, if we’re really concerned about the effects of parental education on applicants’ ability to succeed, why are we limiting ourselves to Stanford? Aren’t Harvard or UPenn grads just as capable of raising bright children? Shouldn’t we instead use a “parental education level” metric? In fact, we – and pretty much every school- already solicit information about parents’ educational level. Why not just use that?

Third, there’s something to be said for the energy, drive, motivation, and sense of challenge that comes with being a first-generation Stanford student (trust me, I am one), let alone a first-generation college student. Shouldn’t we be taking this into consideration as well?

All of this could be debated endlessly. But when it really comes down to it, my biggest problem with legacy preference is the pall it casts over the admissions of legacy students. It’s the same problem that minority students face: the inevitable, debilitating, but almost always unwarranted doubt that the person in question was admitted on his or her merits. I have heard from many students of color that their peers in high school and classmates in college have openly or obliquely accused them of “only getting into Stanford because you’re” black, Hispanic, Native, etc. etc. Some even have those doubts about their own admission. And having reviewed the emotionally charged responses that my post provoked, I can’t help but think that legacy students face the same sort of problem. So if the legacy preference program is of questionable utility and stands on philosophically shaky ground- as I have argued above- why should we continue to use it, knowing that it inflicts at least some level of real psychological distress on its intended beneficiaries? If my children- should I have them- apply to Stanford, I don’t want them to have to deal with that doubt.

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