Debating Legacy Admissions at Yale, and Elsewhere

By JENNY ANDERSON, The New York Times,, April 29, 2011

True or false: Admitting legacies to colleges and universities is, a) unconstitutional b) unethical c) smart business practice or d) legitimate, because legacies perform better at certain elite institutions?

The answer — at least according to a panel discussion about legacy preferences in college admissions convened at New York University Thursday morning — is actually e) all of the above.

Jeffrey B. Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University made the case that legacy preference at Yale College is diminishing and what remains is grounded in financial reality. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and Daniel Golden, an editor at large at Bloomberg who wrote “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” argued that the practice of giving advantages to alumni is both widespread and harmful.

Mr. Kahlenberg, citing research from his book “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions” made the case that getting into good schools matters — 12 institutions making up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population produced 42 percent of government leaders and 54 percent of corporate leaders.

And being a legacy helps improve an applicant’s chances of getting in, with one study finding that being a primary legacy — the son or daughter of an undergraduate alumnus or alumna — increases one’s chance of admission by 45.1 percent.

Mr. Brenzel argued that Mr. Kahlenberg’s data was too broad. At Yale, legacies make up about 10 percent of the 2010-11 undergraduate class compared with 31.4 percent in 1939, he said.

“We turn away 80 percent of our legacies, and we feel it every day,” Mr. Brenzel said, adding that he rejected more offspring of the school’s Sterling donors than he accepted this year (Sterling donors are among the most generous contributors to Yale). He argued that legacies scored 20 points higher on the SAT than the rest of the class as a whole.

Mr. Golden contested this figure, pointing out that the figure for the class as a whole was skewed by other preferences, including those for athletes and underrepresented minorities.

Mr. Brenzel made the case that low-income students represented an increasing size of Yale’s undergraduate class, even though they had less of a track record of success at the university. About 14 percent of the incoming class is supported by Pell Grant students, he said, saying that with respect to preferences, “the trend is down for legacy and up for underrepresented minorities.”

Mr. Kahlenberg argued that legacy preferences were potentially unconstitutional and certainly contrary to American values of merit and social mobility. He said studies had shown that being a legacy was equivalent to a 160-point boost in SAT scores and argued that schools with legacy preferences did not raise more money from alumni than institutions with no preference, when controlling for wealth.

Mr. Brenzel said that there couldn’t be a 160 point increase at Yale since the average SAT score is close to 1500 (out of a total of 1600) on the two main parts of the now-three-part SAT.

And alumni do make better donors. “They are more loyal and when they achieve success in the world, they are more generous.”