This story was co-published with Town & Country.
When Georgetown University announced plans in September to make amends for its historical participation in the slave trade, President John J. DeGioia drew a curious parallel. The descendants of 272 slaves sold by the university in 1838 to pay off debts, he said, would receive the same advantage in admissions as the children of its alumni.
He seemed unaware of the irony. Alumni children at prestigious universities like Georgetown tend to be white and to come from affluent families. In other words, DeGioia was equating a remedy for past racism with a policy, known as legacy preference, that itself discriminates against low-income and minority students.
“If Georgetown really wants to come to grips with its discriminatory past and present, it would also end admissions policies like legacy preference that unconscionably favor the already privileged,” said Michael Dannenberg, director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now, a think tank affiliated with the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. As a U.S. Senate staffer in the early 2000’s, Dannenberg pushed unsuccessfully for legislation restricting admissions preference for alumni children.
DeGioia’s comparison underscores the staying power of legacy preference — despite critics like Dannenberg and me. My 2006 book, “The Price of Admission,” documented that colleges exploit admissions as a fundraising tool, lowering their standards by hundreds of SAT points to let in children of well-heeled alumni, business tycoons, politicians and celebrities. Using students’ names, class ranks and test scores, I challenged the colleges’ propaganda that they either don’t consider family wealth and background in admissions, or just use it to break ties between equally qualified candidates. By exposing these practices, I hoped to spur both transparency and reform.
“The Price of Admission” stirred attention, controversy and outrage. I decried what I called the “preferences of privilege” in appearances on Ivy League campuses and on television shows from “The Colbert Report” to “Nightline.” I even testified before a U.S. Senate committee. My findings could not be dismissed as merely anecdotal, because a mounting stack of academic studies corroborated them. One put the advantage of being an alumni child at 160 points on the 400-1600 SAT scale. Another examined admissions decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities and concluded that the odds of a legacy being accepted at his or her parent’s alma mater are more than seven times better than an ordinary applicant’s.
One of the most notable legacy families of late is, of course, the Trumps. The president-elect earned his bachelor’s degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and served on the school’s board of overseers. Two of his children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, also have Wharton degrees. A third, Tiffany, graduated from Penn in 2016. Although she didn’t go to Wharton, she still qualified for legacy preference under Penn’s policy.
But it was a kid who only later joined the Trump clan whom I mentioned in “The Price of Admission,” and in an article that ProPublica published Friday. Jared Kushner was in high school, starting the college admissions process, when his father, New Jersey real estate developer and NYU alumnus Charles Kushner, pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, in 1998. Harvard named both Charles Kushner and his wife Seryl to its Committee on University Resources, which consists of its biggest donors. Jared enrolled there in 1999. (A Kushner Companies spokeswoman says there was no relationship between the gift and Jared’s admission, adding, “Jared was an excellent student in high school.”)
Polls indicate that most Americans disapprove of legacy preference. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 52 percent of respondents said colleges should not consider whether an applicant’s parent is a graduate; 35 percent said it should be a minor factor, and 11 percent, a major factor.
Yet neither public shaming, nor all of the denunciations of income inequality by the likes of Bernie Sanders, has made much difference. In fact, the practice has only intensified. The allure of rewarding potential benefactors with an admissions break for their children, especially in an era when colleges are increasingly dependent on private giving, has simply proven too strong. A decade after my book, old sources still pepper me with new indignities. One example: despite finishing dead last in his prep school class, the scion of a prominent business family was admitted to a highly rated university where his mother is an alumna and donor.
As they reject more applicants every year, most top universities still make room for as many alumni children as they did a decade ago. Legacies make up 22 percent of this year’s freshmen at Notre Dame, 13 percent at Yale, and between 18 and 19 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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At Princeton, admission dean Janet Lavin Rapelye told me recently, legacies have comprised between 11 and 15 percent of every freshman class for a quarter century; this year, it’s 15 percent, the upper end of the range. “They tend to be very good students who have achieved at a high level in their high school,” she said. “They have taken advantage of the advantages that have been given to them.”
Princeton did formalize conflict of interest rules requiring admission committee members to recuse themselves from deliberations about applicants who are their relatives or friends, Rapelye said. Since I recommended such a policy in “The Price of Admission,” I asked her if I deserved credit for Princeton’s. “I can’t say that,” she replied. “We’re very conscious of being as fair as possible.”
While the acceptance rate for legacies at elite universities has declined, they have maintained or widened their edge over other candidates. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, admitted 37.9 percent of alumni children in 2005, as against 20.8 percent of all applicants. This year, it took 22 percent of legacies, versus 9.4 percent overall. So legacies were accepted at more than twice the average rate this year, a bigger proportional advantage than in 2005.
Elite colleges have become adept at insulating the legacy edge from criticism by linking it to preferences for more sympathetic groups, from slave descendants to students who are the first generation in their families to go to college. Recent freshman classes at the University of Pennsylvania have contained almost as many first-generation students (13 percent) as alumni children and grand-children (16 percent).
“There’s a nice symmetry to that,” said admissions dean Eric Furda. “The door to the Penn tradition is there, also students coming into the college environment for the first time” in family history.
One out of every 10 Georgetown undergraduates is a legacy. The university admits 29 percent of alumni children, as against 16 percent of applicants overall. Tying the slavery and legacy preferences together “makes some sense to me,” Georgetown admissions dean Charles Deacon said. “If you’re going to defend a legacy policy, surely you should apply it to” other members of the Georgetown community who were mistreated historically. Other elite universities that owned slaves are discussing whether to adopt a similar admissions policy, he said.
In practice, Deacon said, the benefit for applicants with slave ancestry is that they “would be at the head of the line” for the boost already given by most top universities to under-represented minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. He added that Georgetown will forever give an edge to the descendants of all slaves whose labor has benefited the university, even if affirmative action is banned. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld affirmative action in admissions, most recently in June in Fisher v. University of Texas. Eliminating affirmative action in college admissions, as several states have, often spurs a backlash against legacy preference.
Meanwhile, colleges woo alumni children more assiduously than ever. The last decade has seen a proliferation of perks: legacy luncheons, workshops on application strategies, early dormitory move-in, and even lucrative scholarships. The outreach sometimes begins at birth. About five years ago, Hanover College in Indiana began sending onesies to newborn legacies, pencil pouches when they start kindergarten, and keychains when they turn 16. Once enrolled at Hanover, every child, step-child, sibling or grandchild of a graduate receives a T-shirt and a $3,000-a-year scholarship. This courtship is paying off: alumni children make up 17.3 percent of Hanover freshmen this year, far above its norm, according to alumni relations director Christy Hughes.
Ten years ago, as I noted in “The Price of Admission,” alumni children were “overwhelmingly white and rich.” At the time, though, admissions deans assured me that the legacy ranks would become more diverse as the children of minorities who gained access to elite universities with the advent of affirmative action reached college age. That doesn’t seem to have happened. Based on a Harvard Crimson survey of freshmen entering Harvard in 2015, alumni children remain a homogeneous group. Legacies constituted 16 percent of the class — but one-fourth of white freshmen, and more than 40 percent of those with household incomes of $500,000 or more.
John Replogle is devoted to Dartmouth College. Chief executive of Seventh Generation Inc., a maker and distributor of environmentally safe cleaning and paper products, and former CEO of Burt’s Bees, Replogle has served on Dartmouth’s board of trustees since 2010. He graduated from the Ivy League school, as did his father and brother. His daughter is a sophomore there. “For me, it was everything in my life to grow up in a Dartmouth family,” he told me. “I had the chance to feel at home on a campus before I even arrived, and use that sense of place and purpose to discover who I was. It’s been great to pass that on to my daughter as well. Dartmouth’s been in my blood since I was born.”
Still, his personal belief is that family ties shouldn’t matter in admissions. “Everyone needs to get in under their own merit,” Replogle said. “I’m a big believer that we need to increasingly think about inclusivity and access. We ought to take a blind approach to admissions.” With his daughter’s application, he said, “I was consciously trying not to engage in the process.”
Closely associated with legacy preference, and also favoring the rich, is early admission. It typically requires a binding college commitment, hindering low-income students from shopping around for the best financial aid package. Early applicants, who are often alumni children, tend to be affluent, and savvy about the college admissions game. Days after my book was published, Harvard announced that, to be fair to minority and low-income applicants, it was abandoning early admission. Princeton and the University of Virginia followed Harvard’s lead. A few years later, though, all three universities reversed their decisions, because many top candidates wanted to apply early.
Since then, early admission has expanded nationwide. The University of Pennsylvania enrolled 53.6 percent of its class this year under early decision, up from about 45 percent a decade ago. Since students admitted early are locked into attending Penn, they boost the university’s yield rate, or proportion of accepted students who enroll, which is often regarded as a barometer of a school’s standing. Penn’s website encourages alumni children and grandchildren to apply early to be “given the most consideration.”
Low-income students on financial aid account for much of the growth in Penn’s early decision enrollment, especially because Penn instituted a policy in 2008 of meeting all need with grants instead of loans, Furda said. Still, he said, “I don’t think it’ll ever be to the point that it’s as diverse as our regular decision pool.”
One reason that college admissions offices still genuflect to major donors is that other sources of revenue aren’t keeping pace with costs. In the past decade, many top universities have increased financial aid. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford give a full ride, including tuition plus room and board, to students whose family income is below $65,000. At Stanford, parents who earn less than $125,000 pay no tuition.
Where’s the money coming from? Not tuition alone. Intimidated by widespread criticism of price hikes, private colleges reduced their average annual increase in tuition and fees from 3 percent between 1995-96 and 2005-06 to 2.4 percent between 2005-06 and 2015-16, according to the College Board. Notre Dame’s financial aid budget has risen 50 percent since 2010, almost twice as much as the price of attending the university, according to Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment. Penn’s undergraduate financial aid budget has soared 155 percent since fiscal 2005, more than double the 65 percent rise in tuition. The rate of tuition increases at public institutions also slowed in the past decade, even as states slashed appropriations.
“Recognizing that the market is more competitive and that we’re constrained in our ability to raise prices, we are going to be more dependent on philanthropy,” said Donald Heller, provost and professor of education at the University of San Francisco. “That means there’s probably more pressure on admissions offices around legacies and development admits” (i.e., applicants recommended by the development, or fundraising, office).
Nor is grassroots support from more alumni filling the gap. From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of alumni donating to the country’s top 20 universities dropped from 26.9 percent to 22.7 percent, according to a table prepared for this article by the Council for Aid to Education. But those who did give, gave more; the average alumni contribution almost doubled from $2,395 to $4,461, meaning that this crucial source of support is coming from large checks written by a relative few. Harvard epitomizes the shift. From 2005 to 2015, the proportion of its alumni who donated dropped from 24 percent to 19.5 percent, but the average gift tripled from $3,394 to $10,194.
Giving from alumni to higher education rose 10.2 percent from 2013-14 to 2014-15, and, from non-alumni, 23.1 percent, according to the Council for Aid to Education. In 2015 alone, seven individuals made gifts of more than $100 million apiece, including one bequest. As the ultra-rich boost philanthropy to universities, the price for giving their progeny an admissions edge has escalated correspondingly. “People think they give a couple hundred thousand or a million, they’re big donors, that’s just no longer the case” at major universities, Notre Dame’s Bishop said. On the other hand, if someone gives $15 million, “which could fund 10 to 15 scholarship kids for perpetuity — do you let their children have some special interest? Yes. But they still have to be quite good.”
The Legacy Establishment — a term I coined in “The Price of Admission” for “the bipartisan array of powerful insiders in the executive branch, Congress, and the judiciary who sent their children to their old schools or are themselves legacies” — replenishes its ranks, dampening any ardor to curb affirmative action for the rich. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, graduated from Duke University. So did her three children — in 2003, 2005 and 2008, while she was in the U.S. House of Representatives. Duke admissions officers “give special consideration” to legacies, “including an additional round of review,” according to the Duke alumni association’s website.
Ten years ago, elite universities were already so selective, and gave preference to so many groups — legacies; development admits; athletes; under-represented minorities, et al. — that candidates who didn’t fit any of these categories faced steep odds. In an interview for my book, Daniel Saracino, then Notre Dame’s assistant provost for admissions, told me, “The poor schmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on water.”
Today, the prospects for these unconnected applicants, who are predominantly middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, are even bleaker. The poor schmucks have to walk on water — during a tsunami. Without significantly increasing enrollments, most top universities accept an even smaller percentage of applicants than they did a decade ago, while making room for more international and first-generation college students. Saracino, now a higher education consultant, switched metaphors in a recent conversation. “The pie isn’t getting any bigger, but the pieces all want to grow a little bit,” he said. “It’ll come at the cost of the everyday kid.”