Education Matters: Leaving a legacy of unfair advantage

By Marsha Sutton


Essays are written, letters of recommendation completed, transcripts mailed, and college applications are in. Now, Part Two, the waiting, begins.

As high school seniors ponder their future academic careers, a new study just released indicates it’s not quite a level playing field out there in College Admissions Land. No one will call this earthshaking news; any student with functioning brain cells knows that some of their peers will have unfair advantage based on all kinds of factors having nothing to do with academic ability.

But the study is compelling, nevertheless, in its exhaustive examination of the effect of legacies and family ties on college admissions, which — if you believe the evidence — have more impact than previously thought.

Conducted by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student in quantitative policy analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the study shows that an applicant whose parents attended the college as an undergraduate had a 45.1 percent increased chance of being admitted.

This “primary legacy” connection weighed much higher than “secondary legacy” family members, including siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. A secondary legacy connection did, though, increase chances somewhat, by 13.7 percent, according to the Harvard study.

Hurwitz examined data from 30 highly selective U.S. universities, none of whom the author identified, since access to private information was provided on the condition that the universities would remain anonymous. But, to guess, one would expect the list to include the big four: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. After that, there are the other Ivy League colleges, and then other elite schools like Duke, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Washington University, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Rice, Emory, Georgetown, USC, Carnegie Mellon ... to name a few.

The University of California colleges — notably UCLA and Berkeley — are commonly listed among the top U.S. colleges but famously do not grant favoritism to legacy students, to the UC system’s credit.

An article on the study in the Jan. 8 New York Times speculated on the anonymous colleges, stating, “It seemed apparent that they are the members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a group made up of the Ivy Leagues and two dozen other private research universities and liberal arts colleges.”

Charitable giving as an admissions factor

According to Hurwitz’s abstract, “Unlike other quantitative studies addressing this topic, I use conditional logistic regression with fixed effects for colleges to draw conclusions about the impact of legacy status on admissions odds. By doing so, I eliminate most sources of outcome bias by controlling for applicant characteristics that are constant across colleges and college characteristics that are constant across applicants.”

In other words, he controlled for varying factors — a comment sure to infuriate researchers for my over-simplicity.

In the New York Times Jan. 8 story, Hurwitz explained, “I was able to take into account all the applicant’s characteristics, because they were the same at every school they applied to. About the only thing that would be different was their legacy status.”



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