Aristocracy 101 Open Enrollment for Swells

Sam Pizzigati

The nation’s public colleges and universities are currently facing unprecedented budget shortfalls and cutbacks. Elite private institutions, meanwhile, are sitting on piles of endowment cash and, says a chilling new study, still reserving huge numbers of seats for the offspring of wealthy alumni.

America may be unequal, apologists for our unequal economic order like to opine, and we may have some people much more rich than others. But we don’t have anything resembling a permanent wealthy aristocracy.

We have instead, the argument goes, plenty of outstanding — and selective — colleges and universities that give a leg up to talented students from modest backgrounds. Thanks to these fine schools, we have no aristocratic hardening of our democratic arteries. Young men and women of talent can rise to the summit of whatever fields they choose.

Thanks to these selective schools, convincingly counters an important just-published collection of essays, so can young men and women of no particular talent — provided they’ve had the good sense to select parents who’ve already graduated from elite institutions.  

Affirmative Action for the RichOur nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher ed, the Century Foundation’s new Affirmative Action for the Rich details, routinely give admission preference to the children of their most affluent alumni.

In effect, notes Century Foundation editor Richard Kahlenberg, elite schools “classify individuals by bloodline” in a process that “compounds existing hierarchy.”

This compounding carries a sweet-sounding label: legacy admissions. Officials at selective institutions seldom ever talk openly about these “legacy” preferences. And if they do talk about them, they minimize their scope and impact on admissions. Alumni kids would get in anyway, they say, on merit.

Some officials at selective colleges will even argue that legacy preferences play a socially redeeming role. These preferences, they contend, give alumni an incentive to contribute to their alma maters, and these alumni contributions help widen opportunities for students from disadvantaged families.

So why should anyone complain, college officials ask, if a so-so student should once in a while happen to sneak in via a legacy preference? The system overall, they argue, works. And besides, legacy preferences have been around for so long that our nation’s finest colleges and universities couldn’t live without them.

None of these contentions, Affirmative Action for the Rich makes plain, happen to be true. Some outstanding colleges — like Caltech — operate quite nicely without legacy preferences. Outside the United States, at elite universities like Cambridge and Oxford, legacy admission preferences simply do not exist.

Years ago, these preferences didn’t exist in the United States either. Colleges started giving legacy preferences only after World War I, when talented immigrant students, many of them Jewish, started outcompeting “traditional constituencies on standard meritocratic criteria.”

In the years since then, these legacy preferences have served to give distinct advantages to the already advantaged. America’s most selective colleges and universities today give up to 25 percent of their slots to alumni offspring. At Caltech, by contrast, only 1.5 percent of students come from alumni families.

All these legacy admissions don’t even seem to pay off financially. One study included in Affirmative Action for the Rich “finds no evidence that alumni preferences increase giving.”

What do legacy admissions accomplish? They simply perpetuate wealth.

signup“By reserving places on campus for members of the pseudo-aristocracy of ‘wealth and birth,’” as Affirmative Action for the Rich contributor Michael Lind sums up, “legacy preferences introduce an aristocratic snake into the democratic republican Garden of Eden.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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