Justin Guiffré: Debating legacy admissions

Legacy admissions. When reading those two words, you are likely to have one of two knee-jerk reactions. Polls show that for the majority Americans, this phrase conjures up images of an elitist class of highly educated people taking care of their own at the expense of talented and hard-working individuals. Others look at legacy admissions as just another aspect of higher education. It is not a matter of the undeserving staking claim over the unwashed, but rather a community-building technique. In the world of higher education, legacy preference can be as polarizing as it gets. But it’s important that we find the gray area and have a realistic discussion about GW’s admissions process.

Let’s get some silent truths out of the way. One, students who receive legacy preference are not all freeloaders who spend almost as much money on beer as their parents donated to rename a building. Two, legacy preference means that yes, more students with family connections will be admitted over potentially more qualified students. Three, the admissions process is not only about finding the most qualified students.

That last point may seem like blasphemy. Am I telling you that our admissions process shouldn’t be a complete, impersonal meritocracy? Yes.

Former president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg made some prescient points about this topic on a recent panel about higher education. He said, “If you choose only the most qualified, you could end up with a class of 2,000 girls who will be very disappointed when looking around on the first day of freshman year.” It’s true that the selection of any given class isn’t about lining up applicants and accepting the 2,000 with the highest test scores. It is a much more complex system of finding people who are excited about GW, who prove they are enthusiastic about being part of the community and who demonstrate the intangible factors that don’t show up on the SATs.

Some people attach this sentiment to legacy admissions, claiming that the sense of community created by familial preference is one of those intangible factors that should aid in the admissions process.

But the problem with this theory is that it hasn’t really been shown to be a useful tool. Anecdotally, we hear that it makes alumni feel more integral to the school. Analytically, schools don’t really see the benefits. Legacy families do not have a higher rate of donating when fixed for income levels. Schools that have eliminated legacy preference have not seen significant reductions in their overall giving rates.

Legacy preference also brings on a whole host of other issues. It is still legally questionable, as it hasn’t been the subject of serious litigation since a 1976 ruling from a federal court case that is, at best, a flimsy precedent. Legacy admissions also disproportionately hurt the chances of minority students, as the rate of minorities receiving legacy preference is about half of the average admissions pool.

With all of these problems, there must be some logic behind legacy admissions.

Let’s think of a quick metaphor. Airlines and convenience stores give preference to returning customers. Isn’t it just a reality that having experience with a certain family reduces risk for the institution? Colleges aren’t about the bottom line, but we can speculate that a family that has previously played a positive role in the GW community will likely continue that tradition.

The fundamental problem with legacy preference is that we have yet to see substantial proof of its benefits. Trachtenberg’s arguments should be given credence, but they also need evidence. If GW, and higher education in general, is going to continue using this metric, it needs to back up its arguments.

Legacy admissions isn’t something that should be approached with knee-jerk reactionism. It’s good that we have a discussion of the complexities of the admissions process, and a recognition that it isn’t all about assigning numbers. On the other hand, we have yet to see if legacy preference fits into this argument.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is The Hatchet’s managing director.

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