Why we need to ban college legacy admissions

A big reason rich kids have such an advantage is so-called “legacy admissions”—the preference elite schools give to family members of alumni.

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Children of the super rich are more than twice as likely to get into America’s most elite universities as middle-class students with the exact same test scores. This fast-tracks them to become the next generation of CEOs and lawmakers, and helps keep wealth and power in the hands of people who started out wealthy and powerful.

A big reason rich kids have such an advantage is so-called “legacy admissions” — the preference elite schools give to family members of alumni.

The vast majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, think this is unfair. An astounding 68% of all voters support banning legacy admissions outright. This is the strongest bipartisan agreement I think I’ve ever seen on an issue that boils down to who gets special privileges in America.

Now I went  to an Ivy League school (Dartmouth), followed by Oxford, and Yale Law. I wasn’t rich. My father ran a clothing store.

That was a half-century ago — before inequalities of income and wealth exploded in America, before the middle class began shrinking, before the American oligarchy began corrupting American politics with a flood of big money donations. Today, it’s much harder for a middle-class kid to get the same opportunities that I had.

New research conducted at Harvard (ironically) looked at 16 years of admissions data from the Ivy League schools, plus Stanford, Duke, MIT, and the University of Chicago.

The research reveals that one in six students at these prestigious schools comes from the richest 1% of American families.  

Why are so many rich kids getting in? It’s not because they’re better students.

Children from the top 1% were 34% more likely to be admitted than middle-class students with the same SAT or ACT scores.

Those from the top ONE TENTH OF ONE PERCENT were more than twice as likely to get in.

Legacy admissions are one of the biggest reasons. Nearly 30% of Harvard’s Class of 2023 were legacies.

It’s a vicious cycle that consolidates wealth and power in the hands of a few.

Less than 1% of Americans get into one of these top schools, but their graduates account for 12% of the Fortune 500 CEOs,  a quarter of all U.S. senators, and more than a third of all Americans with a net worth over $100 million.

And because these graduates are in the winner’s circle, their children have every advantage in the world — even before they get legacy preferences into the same prestigious universities, which in turn hand them even more advantages.

You see how this entrenches an American aristocracy? Concentrated wealth at the top leads to even more and more wealth concentration with each new generation.

It also perpetuates racial discrimination. Since non-white students were barred from most colleges for much of America’s history, legacy students are by definition more likely to be white.

The Ivy League’s legacy policies were introduced during the Jim Crow era, with the specific intent of limiting the number of students of color and Jewish students who could be admitted.

To this day, about 70% of Harvard’s legacy admissions are white, which is why the U.S. Department of Education is now investigating Harvard for potential violation of civil rights.

And with the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action, this systemic racism is likely to get worse. The Court is pretending to make college admissions “race-blind,” while preserving systems that advance wealthy white students over all others.

It’s time for the government to ban legacy admissions.

Read it on Robert Reich’s blog.

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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.

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