Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Getting into College: Echidne's Tips

Legacy admissions to college have been in the news again:

Blood ties to alumni, sometimes known as the other affirmative action, are the deciding factor in the admission of more than 300 white Texas A&M University freshmen annually, according to data provided by the school.
Such students -- known as "legacy admits" -- equal roughly the overall total of blacks admitted to A&M each year. Only a handful of black students a year are admitted because of legacy points.
A&M's program is drawing particular fire because university President Robert Gates recently announced the university, now free from a court ruling prohibiting racial preferences, won't consider race in admissions. Coleman and other black legislators cited a seeming contradiction between Gates' rhetoric that students be admitted strictly because of merit and a program they say perpetuates class distinction and white advantage.
Gates, president for 1 1/2 years, said he doesn't have a gut-level feeling about legacies, much less a thought-out one, because he inherited the program and knows little about it. He said a task force will study its future.

If Texas A&M President Robert Gates actually said that students should be admitted strictly because of merit, he is either going to revolutionize the admissions policies of American colleges or coin completely novel definitions of the term 'merit'. College admissions have never been based on strict merit. Factors such as family wealth, alumni status, geographic location and skills in playing some sport totally unrelated to the purpose of a university education have always had an effect on the applicants' chances of a place in the freshman year class. But none of these issues has provoked anywhere near the anger about lack of merit as racial preferential treatment in college admissions. It's not just fair, many seem to think. Students should be admitted on the basis of their merit, not because of their skin color. Even George W. Bush implied this in his
comments about last year's University of Michigan affirmative action case:

At the law school, some minority students are admitted to meet percentage targets while other applicants with higher grades and better scores are passed over. This means that students are being selected or rejected based primarily on the color of their skin. The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination and that discrimination is wrong.

Is it then fair to admit students largely based on where their parents went to school? Or based on how much their parents have stashed away? Or based on the location of their homes? If this is fair, why is using skin color less fair? In all these cases it could be that some student of greater academic merit, some student who has worked better and burned the midnight oil longer, some student with the potential of finding the cure for cancer, may have been denied admission because some other student was given preferential treatment.

In my experience, this is how most opponents of racial affirmative action view its effects. Yet they are strangely silent about the other affirmative action programs, or if they comment on them, they merely point out the rationale for doing these kinds of things : of course colleges want to favor alumni children, after all, their parents are a major source of funds, of course colleges wish to attract students from all sorts of geographical locations in order to create a diverse student body. Or they point out that discrimination on the basis of these other factors: wealth, blood ties and location is not illegal, but discrimination on the basis of race is. Or they argue that the numbers involved in the other affirmative action programs are too small to really make a difference.

But of course the racial preferences in admissions also have a rationale: to create a more equal society, and the numbers of the beneficiaries from these other policies are by no means inconsiderable. As an example, in last year's freshman class at Duke University, 18% of the students entered through the program for underrepresented minorities, 12% through the alumni program, 8% were recruited as athletes and 3-5% as potential donors (i.e. rich kids). Though some students may have entered through more than one program and many of these students might have qualified for unassisted admissions, the fact remains that at Duke the other affirmative action programs cover a larger percentage of freshmen than race-based affirmative action itself. So why the furor over one and not the others, at least among those currently in government? Might it have something to do with the race of the beneficiaries? After all, most alumni children are still white and so are overwhelmingly the students with very wealthy parents? And though many student athletes are black many are not. This couldn't be the answer, could it?

Think about the following exchange of opinions by the lawyers representing the two sides in the University of Michigan case:

"What does legacy preference do to advance fairness and merit?" asks Theodore M. Shaw, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., who represents 17 minority high-school students granted defendant status in the suit against the university. "Why is it more defensible than an attempt to include people from minority groups that have been excluded in the past and are still under-represented?"
The reply from the white students' lawyer, Michael Rosman: "Because some small percentage of white students are getting legacy preference, that doesn't mean we should disadvantage all whites" with racial preferences.

Michael Rosman appears to think that racial preferences disadvantage whites but that legacy preferences don't. But surely they do; they disadvantage all whites who are not lucky enough to have had parents, grandparents or siblings who went to the same college. Rosman appears to see the races as two competing armies, fighting a war for the same reward: a place at college, not as consisting of individuals which can indeed be harmed by preferencial treatment given to 'one of their own'.

The most fascinating and least talked about in the group of these other affirmative action programs are the potential donors. These are students with very wealthy parents. Duke University finds them as follows:

Duke's system works this way: Through its own network and names given by trustees, alumni and others, the development office identifies about 500 likely applicants with rich or powerful nonalumni parents. It offers them campus tours and admissions advice and relays the names to the admissions office.
The development office then trims the list to at least 160 high-priority applicants. Admissions readers evaluate them on merit, without regard to family wealth. About 30 to 40 are accepted, the others tentatively rejected or wait-listed. Mr. Guttentag and John Piva Jr., senior vice president for development, debate these 120 cases, weighing their family's likely contribution against their academic shortcomings. Most are admitted.
Once these children of privilege enroll, the development office enlists their parents as donors and fund raisers. A committee of more than 200 nonalumni parents provides a volunteer army for the four classes currently at Duke. Committee members usually give at least $1,000 to Duke, and the eight co-chairmen and the national chairman contribute more, sometimes six- or seven-figure sums.
Membership in the parents' committee is by invitation only and is overwhelmingly white.

Hmmm. My tips about how to get into the college of your choice if you're worried about your grades and test results not being quite up to the expected standards: 1. Get rich parents.
2. Make them attend the right universities. 3. Have them buy a house in some God-forsaken locality where nobody ever goes to college. Voila! You're in. This is a lot more likely to work than belonging to a racial minority. It's also totally unrelated to any merit attributable to the studen't own work.

Postscript 1/11/04: Texas A&M just announced that they are going to scrap legacy admissions.