Sixteen years from now, when my son applies to college, odds are that he won’t be asked about his race or where his parents went to college. He’ll confront a starkly different admissions landscape than I did in the early 2000s, when many universities took race into account to build diverse student bodies. When I applied to Harvard, my identity as a black woman was probably a mark in my favor. At the same time, my lack of any familial connection to the school surely did me no favors at a university that admits legacy applicants at more than five times the rate of non-legacies.
That may be changing. Affirmative action policies are in greater danger than ever thanks to an all-but-secure conservative Supreme Court majority, the Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama administration’s policies on the issue and a legal challenge that claims Harvard’s admissions process discriminates against Asian students. As commentators have considered the potential fallout of outlawing affirmative action, many have trained their sights on legacy admissions as a system that perpetuates the kind of inequality that affirmative action seeks to correct. The increased scrutiny of legacy admissions is entirely appropriate — those who deride the practice as a back-door affirmative action program for privileged white students aren’t wrong. But in 2018, white college applicants aren’t the only ones who benefit from admissions preferences for the children of alumni.
While the likely end of affirmative action is a more obvious setback for diversity and racial justice, the potential elimination of legacy preferences would also be a loss for at least some people of color. It’s been only a few decades since we were welcomed into predominantly white colleges and universities in any significant numbers; we’ve had only a generation or two to begin building our own legacies. So for some of us, the moral rightness of ending legacy preferences to create a more equitable admissions process comes with a bittersweet edge: It adds one more thing to the pile of privileges that people of color can’t pass down to our children as easily as untold generations of whites have done.
Thanks in part to affirmative action policies, the decades from the 1970s onward saw a significant increase in the admission of students of color at American colleges and universities. From just 1996 to 2012, college enrollment among Hispanic students more than tripled, and black student enrollment rose 72 percent. In 2014, Harvard admitted the most black students in its history, and in 2017, the majority of the school’s incoming class was nonwhite. As waves of college graduates of color have gone on to have families, these demographic trends have created a growing pipeline of legacies of color who would receive admissions boosts at their parents’ alma maters.
For underrepresented black, Latino and Native American alumni, the prospect of our children finally being able to lay claim to the legacy advantage after hundreds of years of being shut out feels hard-won and precious. While I grew up solidly middle class, I didn’t have generations’ worth of connections to grease the wheels for my entrance to an elite institution like Harvard. One of my great-grandfathers had only a sixth-grade education, and my great-grandmother never finished high school. On the other side of my family, my grandparents went to a Southern historically black college in the 1940s and early 1950s, well before any elite white universities began the process of full integration. I wasn’t the first generation to go to college, but my entrance into one of the oldest and most respected universities in the world lifted me — and by extension my family — into an echelon of privilege to which, until then, we hadn’t yet been granted access. And when I had my son, I was warmed by the thought that when the time came for him to apply, the path to Harvard might be just a bit smoother because I had gone before him.
It’s frustrating but not entirely surprising that legacy admissions stand to be eliminated just as people of color might begin to reap the benefits. The very word “legacy” evokes ancestors handing down something valuable from one generation to the next, and American institutions are not historically known for promoting the intergenerational accumulation of wealth, achievement or privilege among people of color. The black middle class in particular is notoriously fragile, with structural barriers to things like homeownership putting even the children of economically successful parents at significant risk of backsliding into poverty. The Brookings Institution reported in 2015 that “most black middle class kids are downwardly mobile,” as 7 in 10 black Americans born into families within the middle income quintile will fall into one of the two lower quintiles as adults. Even wealthy people of color have a harder time making their socioeconomic status stick across generations: A recent study found that while most white children who grow up in wealthy households will remain wealthy, or at least upper middle class, in adulthood, most black children raised in wealthy households won’t, with 38 percent ultimately ending up lower middle class or poor. Native American and Hispanic families similarly struggle with disproportionate rates of downward mobility. And now we may not be able to pass down any advantage in the admissions game, either.
As elite colleges report admissions rates that seem to be inching ever nearer to zero percent, it’s tempting to wish that they would hang on to the legacy practice a little while longer so that my son and other children of color might someday benefit. After all, where a person goes to school matters not only in terms of warm and fuzzy alumni pride but in terms of cash: Graduates of Ivy League and other top colleges, on average, enjoy salaries tens of thousands of dollars higher than those from other schools. Given the very real financial stakes tied to elite college admissions, I — like any parent — want the best possible chance for my child.
But social justice, in education and elsewhere, demands that a policy’s advantages for me should not be the sole factor driving my support or opposition. Rather, the collective good should take precedent, and the research is clear that legacy admissions do not further that good. Whatever the incidental benefit to a handful of people of color, legacy admissions preferences primarily serve to advantage the advantaged: The overwhelming majority of beneficiaries continue to be white and often wealthy applicants who do not need another leg up in the world. With schools like Harvard and others filling huge portions of their classes with legacies, students from less-privileged backgrounds — including minorities — have been crowded out. Thus, even as the children of the relatively few alumni of color may have found their way into the ranks of accepted students, in practical effect, legacy preferences have just reinforced existing racial and economic hierarchies.
It does seem a shame to lose a potential engine of intergenerational prosperity, however limited, just when a critical mass of minority children stands to benefit. But especially without affirmative action as a countervailing force, the continued existence of legacy preferences will be indefensible among those who hope for increased educational opportunity for all people of color — not just those who were born into it. Much more than I want my son to walk an easier path to the Ivy League, I want a higher-education system that welcomes new and diverse families. Instead of him gaining an advantage on a college application, I’d rather see him inherit a fairer world.
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