Aug 2, 2023

The legacy admissions debate.

Without affirmative action, should we end legacy admissions?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's topic: 11 minutes.

We're covering the new challenge to legacy admissions. Plus, a reader question about the relocation of the Space Force headquarters.

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Quick hits.

  1. Former President Donald Trump was criminally indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington, DC, for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He is facing three conspiracy charges: One to defraud the United States, one to obstruct an official government proceeding, and one to deprive people of a civil right. This is the second case brought by special counsel Jack Smith and separate from a grand jury investigation in Fulton County, Georgia. (The charges)
  2. The ratings agency Fitch downgraded the U.S. credit rating to AA+ from AAA, citing a growing debt burden, erosion of governance, and an expected fiscal deterioration. (The downgrade
  3. The York Fire wildfire in California has become the largest of the year, burning over 80,000 acres. (The fire)
  4. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, says it is introducing AI-powered chatbots with individual personas on its platforms as early as September. (The plan
  5. The Department of Energy launched a new rule requiring light bulbs to have a minimum brightness of 45 lumens per watt, effectively banning incandescent lights. (The ban

Today's topic.

Legacy admissions. This week, the United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona suggested that the Supreme's Court's decision to strike down affirmative action could lead to axing legacy admissions, the practice of giving priority to the children of alumni.

Separately, a civil rights group called Lawyers for Civil Rights is challenging legacy admissions at Harvard University, saying the practice discriminates against students of color by giving an unfair advantage to mostly white alumni. The NAACP joined the civil rights complaint, asking 1,500 colleges and universities to end legacy admissions.

The threat to affirmative action comes just weeks after the court determined that race-based admissions were unconstitutional. Civil rights groups and politicians have been echoing the dissent of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who suggested in her writing on the affirmative action case that giving legacy preference constituted a form of race-based discrimination because colleges that use the practice were segregated for so long. Opponents say without the counterbalance of affirmative action, legacy admissions is no longer defensible.

In the civil rights complaint, which was submitted to the Education Department's Civil Rights division, Lawyers for Civil Rights point to Harvard's own data, which shows 70% of donor-related and legacy applicants are white and that being a legacy student makes an applicant six times more likely to be admitted.

Some schools have already abandoned legacy admissions, including Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Minnesota, and Virginia Tech.

Today, we're going to break down the debate over legacy admissions with some views from the left and right, and then as always, my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left oppose legacy admissions, saying they shouldn’t exist without affirmative action.
  • Some argue legacy admissions are effectively affirmative action for white college students.
  • Others argue legacy preference benefits the underprivileged in underappreciated ways.  

In Vox, Fabiola Cineas said "affirmative action for white college applicants is still here."

The court's decision to end affirmative action "left other kinds of admission preferences in place — ones that often benefit white students," Cineas said. "Harvard’s final stage of deciding to admit or reject students is a step called the 'lop,' in which four factors are evaluated: whether an applicant is a legacy, meaning an immediate family member went to Harvard; whether they were recruited as an athlete; whether they are eligible for financial aid; and their race. Race is now unconstitutional to consider, but other preferences remain."

"One study found that these preferences give an edge to white applicants. Among white students admitted to Harvard, 43 percent received a preference for athletics, legacy status, being on the dean’s interest list, or for being the child of a faculty or staff member, and without those advantages, three-quarters would have been rejected," she noted. Some colleges use legacy admissions to boost yield rates, or the rate at which accepted students enroll. "A bigger reason, though, is alumni engagement and funding... legacy students are more likely to stay connected to the college over generations and then are hence more likely to donate to the institution later on."

The New York Daily News editorial board said colleges "have to end unfair legacy admissions."

"In the wake of the high court’s decision banning race-based affirmative action, as those very voices demand schools use income- and class-based preferences to build diverse student bodies, they ought to be just as offended by the persistence of legacy-based admissions, which amount to affirmative action for the already privileged," the board said. "To start, that means cheering rather than scoffing at the federal civil rights investigation into those preferences by Joe Biden’s Education Department, a probe that we hope will uncover the extent of the pernicious practice at a higher education institution many middle-class and poor kids would kill to get into."

"Harvard puts a thumb on the scale not only for legacies, but for recruited athletes, relatives of donors and children of faculty and staff. All told, they are less than 5% of applicants, but around 30% of those admitted each year," the board wrote. "The not-so-secret shame of elite institutions of higher education is that they’ve increasingly become finishing schools for the well-off rather than engines of economic and social mobility. As of 2017, at 38 top colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students came from the top 1% of the income scale than from the bottom 60%."

In The New York Times, Shamus Khan said legacy admissions "don't work the way you think they do."

There is "considerable evidence" that going to an elite school made no difference in earnings for legacy students, who were already on the path to success. "One group, however, got a big economic boost from going to elite schools: poor students, students of color and students whose parents didn’t have a college degree. And that’s because elite colleges connected them to students born into privilege — the very kind of student that legacy preferences admit in such large numbers," Khan said. "We might assume that legacy admissions help privileged students at the expense of underprivileged ones.

"But I would wager that legacy students, if eliminated, are far more likely to be replaced by other kinds of privileged students than by underprivileged ones," Khan said. For underprivileged students, the benefits of going to school with legacy students are huge: "It affiliates you with an illustrious organization, offers you connections to people with friends in high places and acculturates you in the conventions and etiquette of high-status settings." Colleges don't set up legacy admissions for these reasons, but "with the end of affirmative action, the peculiar upside of legacy admissions fades away — and the policy becomes impossible to justify." Still, "I don’t imagine getting rid of them would do much to balance the scale in favor of those from historically marginalized and excluded backgrounds."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on the issue, with some defending legacy admissions and others arguing they are worth getting rid of.
  • Some suggest that legacy admissions help benefit colleges and are the best ways to raise money.
  • Others argue that colleges should focus more on how to get more low-income students into college.

In National Review, Dan McLaughlin said Democrats are going after legacy admissions for bad reasons with dubious law.

"As a matter of policy, the case against legacy admissions is well known and persuasive. College admissions are a zero-sum competition, and their importance as a gateway or barrier to opportunity and a shaper of social class has grown enormously in recent decades," McLaughlin said. "Americans rightly feel that colleges should dispense those opportunities fairly, on the basis of some form of merit.” Though legacy admissions benefit schools and not students, "there are four basic arguments in favor of legacy admissions."

"First... alumni are likelier to donate money to their alma mater if they feel that it is a place that will look with favor on their children. Second, families sending multiple generations to the school builds a sense of community more generally among alumni. Third... legacy applicants are more predictably likely to attend if admitted," which makes it easier for administrators to construct the student body. "Fourth, legacy-admitted students are less likely to struggle to fit in on a campus." But if Democrats "in a vindictive mood" with racial preferences gone are looking for a fight from Republicans, "they may be surprised. The mood on the right is quite hostile these days to the administrations of elite colleges.”

In The Wall Street Journal, James Hankins wrote about "the case for legacy admissions."

"Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the usual zealots on the left have been newly enraged about legacies," Hankins said. "The left must have a cause as a dog must have fleas, and now that the court has forced the university to acknowledge that admissions are a zero-sum game—preferences for some means discrimination against others—legacies are the new cause du jour." However, there is a great deal to be said in favor of legacy admissions, "other things being equal, like test scores and grades." The wealthiest private universities "can't begin to maintain their operations on tuition alone."

At Harvard, tuition revenue "pays only 21% of operating costs." Rather, endowments, "built from the generosity of alumni over many generations," allow them to function. The question is where that money will come from, Jenkins suggested. "Foreign donors and corporations, some of them silent partners of foreign governments, who are trying to buy access to research and exercise political influence? Or wealthy alumni—legacies themselves and the hopeful parents of legacies—who know and love the institution and want to show their loyalty? Loyalty should run both ways. As long as the children of alumni meet the standards of admission, it’s unclear why they shouldn’t be admitted preferentially."

In City Journal, Robert VerBruggen wrote about his opposition to legacy admissions, but why ending them won't help address the disproportionately wealthy elite schools.

"The huge admissions bonus for the ultra-wealthy would disappear if elite schools wanted it to. How much would it help everyone else if colleges started making changes to practices like legacy admissions? Significantly, but not as much as one might think," VerBruggen said. "The bottom line is that, for any number of reasons, richer kids tend to have higher test scores and stronger grades by the time they apply to college, and any system designed to select students with the best academics will reflect those inequalities.

"At Ivy Plus schools, about 42 percent of students come from parents in the top 5 percent of the income distribution" and researchers "estimate that eliminating legacy preferences, killing the 'admissions advantage arising from the higher non-academic ratings obtained by students from high-income families,' and ending 'the over-representation of students from high-income families in athletic recruitment' would bring that number down only to 33 percent," VerBruggen said. "Instead of (or in addition to) eliminating preferences that benefit the wealthy, colleges might give a bigger boost to poorer applicants. Almost anything is possible with this approach: just keep making the preference bigger until you get the numbers you want."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • My position here isn’t a secret. As I wrote after the affirmative action ruling, I think legacy admissions should go.
  • The best reason to keep legacies would be the consequences of removal of revenue from loyal donors, as Hankins outlined.
  • But the evidence ending legacy admissions would hurt these colleges financially is not very strong, and the practice is indefensible without affirmative action.

I've already expressed my opposition to legacy admissions, so there is no big secret here.

During oral arguments around affirmative action, I found Justice Jackson's arguments on this issue quite persuasive. It really isn't that complicated: If a university is giving preference to the children of alumni, and they previously had policies that did not allow non-white students into their schools, then the children of alumni who benefit are going to be disproportionately white (and wealthy).

But the argument that gave me the most pause was the one from James Hankins (under "What the right is saying") about the ways schools might try to replace money they currently get from legacy family donations. As he noted, that money has to come from somewhere, and if legacy students provide a huge source of funding for schools, removing legacy admissions might significantly reduce that endowment money. Then what? Perhaps schools turn to corporations or foreign countries who want to donate for the same reasons families do — for access to these institutions.

Hankins poses the question: Who would you rather have funding these elite institutions? Loyal, wealthy, individual people whose families have histories at the schools, or corporations and foreign governments?

In this framing I think he is right: I'd pick the wealthy, loyal individuals. But there is less evidence than Hankins lets on that this is a worthwhile concern. We have some research showing legacy admissions don’t actually increase alumni giving. And even if they did, there's no reason to think schools would turn to foreign governments or corporations for endowments rather than just ramp up the focus on asking for money from individual alumni — but perhaps with a lesser focus on legacy families.

In the end, as even those open-minded about the benefits of legacy admissions noted, the practice becomes indefensible when you throw out race-based admissions. All things being equal, a student shouldn't get into an elite school simply because their parents went there. The argument about building loyalty and school pride and history is all well and good, but there's a strong argument that introducing new families and new students and fresh blood onto campus is just as beneficial for students and the institution as a whole.

While it’s true the NAACP is challenging 1,500 schools to back off legacy admissions, a policy change that would be more far-reaching than affirmative action, the conversation here has the typical problem of focusing on elite universities and ignoring the schools the vast majority of students will attend. Consider this fact: The number of undergraduates who receive Pell Grants at Georgia State alone is greater than the combined number from the entire Ivy League. And, in this case, it's also true that getting rid of legacy admissions will do little to stop wealthier kids from getting into elite colleges through other backdoors, like non-scholarship athletic preference for sports with predominant participation by the wealthy.

Still, the practice of legacy admissions can — and should — end. It is probably best if it happens slowly, to give applicants and universities time to adjust. But a few years from now, our elite colleges, and the students attending them, will be better off if they’ve phased legacy admissions out for good.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Will you sum up the debate around the Space Force? What are the arguments for keeping it in Colorado versus Alabama? Why has the move or lack thereof been such a dragged out issue? Thanks, Isaac!

— LynAnne from Colorado

Tangle: Just a little context for those unaware: When the U.S. Space Force was established by Donald Trump as a branch of the armed services in 2019, its initial headquarters were at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO. What's followed since has been straightforward — and mindlessly petty.

The decision to locate Space Force Command in Colorado Springs made sense, as the Air Force Academy, which graduates Space Force guardians, is located there. However, it wasn't necessarily permanent. The Air Force was tasked with determining where the permanent headquarters should be, and in 2020 it chose the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama. This decision is also perfectly sensible, as the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville is home to the largest NASA center and has been a rocket design hub since the 1960s.

However, that decision sparked pushback from Democratic Colorado lawmakers, who accused Trump of partisan politics after he said he "single-handedly" sent the headquarters to Alabama. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the credibility and bias of the Air Force's decision, saying the selection process had been proceeding normally until March of 2020. The AP has also reported that Space Force Commander James Dickinson is "staunchly in favor" of staying in Colorado.

Then earlier this week, Biden reversed the decision, saying the command will stay in Colorado, despite the GAO giving Hunstville a higher score in its assessment of where the base should be. The AP reported that Biden was persuaded by Commander Dickinson, who argued to keep it in Colorado for increased readiness and decreased cost. This move was also met with pushback, as Republican Alabamian lawmakers accused Biden of partisan politics, calling the decision retribution for Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville's recent stand to block military appointments in Congress (which we covered). Meanwhile, the Colorado Sentinel has also reported that, according to Tuberville, Commander Dickinson actually favors the location in Alabama — contradicting the White House and other reporting.

It's all a bit exasperating (and confusing). 

First of all, Trump's initial decision was almost certainly politically motivated, as the GAO highlighted and as Trump himself all but boasted. But it doesn't mean Huntsville was a bad choice. And while Biden has denied that his decision was retributional, it almost certainly was, as well. He had initially stated he would not challenge the decision to move the command center to Alabama, and then made this decision after Tuberville — an Alabama senator — began his protest against the military's abortion policies. The timing is suspicious, to say the least. But that also doesn't mean that Colorado Springs is a bad choice, either.

The truth is, Huntsville and Colorado Springs are both good options, and there are good reasons to support either location — and both decisions reek of petty, partisan politics.

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Under the radar.

After the Biden administration's student debt cancellation plan was thrown out by the Supreme Court, the administration launched the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) repayment plan. The plan is designed as an income-driven repayment plan that would cut many borrowers' previous monthly payments in half, leaving some borrowers with no monthly bill. Previously, borrowers with undergraduate student debt were required to pay 10% of their discretionary income a month toward the Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan. Now, under SAVE, the required percentage is just 5%. Those who make less than $15 an hour won't need to make any payments under the new plan. MSNBC has the story.


  • 33.6%. The admission rate for legacy applicants at Harvard between 2009-2014.
  • 5.9%. The admission rate for non-legacy applicants at Harvard between 2009-2014.
  • 86%. The admission rate for recruited athletes at Harvard between 2009-2014. 
  • 5x. The increased likelihood of admission to Ivy Plus schools for legacy students from families in the top 1% of income distribution compared to an applicant with comparable test scores, demographic characteristics, and admissions office ratings.
  • 75%. The percentage of Americans who say they do not support the use of legacy preferences, according to a 2022 survey.
  • 89%. The percentage of college admissions directors who do not support the use of legacy preferences, according to a 2022 survey.
  • 80%. The percentage of colleges and universities that admit under 25% of applicants and provide a legacy preference. 

The Extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the European space telescope.
  • As charged: 915 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about the investigations into former President Donald Trump, with 84% saying they believe he had done something illegal. 10% said he had done something unethical but not illegal, 3% said he'd done nothing wrong, and 3% were unsure or had no opinion. One respondent said, "I agree with the statement that if he were doing nothing wrong, why would he try to cover it up?"
  • Nothing to do with politics: Are these bears in a Chinese zoo just people in costumes?
  • Take the poll. Do you think colleges should do away with legacy admissions? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.