Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Jared Kushner Isn’t Alone: Universities Still Give Rich and Connected Applicants a Leg Up

When Georgetown University announced plans in September to make amends for its historical participation in the slave trade, President John J. DeGioia drew a curious parallel. The descendants of 272 slaves sold by the university in 1838 to pay off debts, he said, would receive the same advantage in admissions as the children of its alumni.

He seemed unaware of the irony. Alumni children at prestigious universities like Georgetown tend to be white and to come from affluent families. In other words, DeGioia was equating a remedy for past racism with a policy, known as legacy preference, that itself discriminates against low-income and minority students.

“If Georgetown really wants to come to grips with its discriminatory past and present, it would also end admissions policies like legacy preference that unconscionably favor the already privileged,” said Michael Dannenberg, director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now, a think tank affiliated with the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. As a U.S. Senate staffer in the early 2000’s, Dannenberg pushed unsuccessfully for legislation restricting admissions preference for alumni children.

DeGioia’s comparison underscores the staying power of legacy preference — despite critics like Dannenberg and me. My 2006 book, “The Price of Admission,” documented that colleges exploit admissions as a fundraising tool, lowering their standards by hundreds of SAT points to let in children of well-heeled alumni, business tycoons, politicians and celebrities. Using students’ names, class ranks and test scores, I challenged the colleges’ propaganda that they either don’t consider family wealth and background in admissions, or just use it to break ties between equally qualified candidates. By exposing these practices, I hoped to spur both transparency and reform.

“The Price of Admission” stirred attention, controversy and outrage. I decried what I called the “preferences of privilege” in appearances on Ivy League campuses and on television shows from “The Colbert Report” to “Nightline.” I even testified before a U.S. Senate committee. My findings could not be dismissed as merely anecdotal, because a mounting stack of academic studies corroborated them. One put the advantage of being an alumni child at 160 points on the 400-1600 SAT scale. Another examined admissions decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities and concluded that the odds of a legacy being accepted at his or her parent’s alma mater are more than seven times better than an ordinary applicant’s.  (more...)


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