By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Johns Hopkins University just announced that it’s abandoned the practice of legacy admissions – preferences for children and relatives of an alumnus or alumna.
In fact, Johns Hopkins ended the practice in 2014 – and only got around to announcing the change in January. The percentage of legacy students in its 2019 freshman class has now fallen to 3.5%, from 12.5% in 2009 – the period just before a phaseout of legacy admissions began, according tot he Christian Science Monitor.
The Varsity Blues scandal showed the lengths parents would go to secure admission for their progeny to colleges and universities (as I discussed in Another Way the Rich Get Richer: US Indicts Fifty for College Admissions Fraud). Since prosecutors announced their probe, many participants have pled guilty to various charges, and some have done time.
The scandal has sparked many questions. Such as: what’s different between ‘gifting’ a college with a new building or facility to secure admissions for one’s sprog, and the actions for which some Varsity Blues parents have now been punished.
Not much that I can see, actually. Except the amount of money that changes hands – and who receives it.
As the WSJ reports:
Richard Kahlenberg, a longtime critic of legacy preferences and senior fellow at left-leaning Century Foundation, said schools weren’t being forthright.
“Their hands are caught in the cookie jar and in a post Varsity Blues world they are trying to deny it,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “They realize that to the public the main difference between the soccer coach and bribing the school is who the check is made out to.”
Alas, the Varsity Blues prosecutors didn’t widen their probe to consider institutional admission practices more generally.
Some Institutions Already Eschew Legacy Admissions
Now, some leading US institutions, such as MIT and the University of California system – don’t make legacy admissions. Likewise, other elite universities – Oxford and Cambridge – also get by perfectly fine without them.
All Ivy League Institutions maintain the practice, At Harvard, legacies are five times more likely to be admitted compared to non-legacies, whereas at Princeton, they are four times more likely. Overall, being a legacy is equivalent to a 160 point bump in SAT score, according to the WSJ.
As the Christian Science Monitor reports:
Johns Hopkins’ announcement revitalizes the debate over legacy policies. It comes amid a growing call for elite institutions to regain the trust of a skeptical public by prioritizing equity and transparency. With lower-income and less-educated families representing the fastest-growing supply of students, many campuses are starting to rethink long-standing practices. And as the public gains more insight into how admissions have typically worked at elite institutions – through the Harvard admissions trial, for instance – selective colleges are facing more scrutiny about legacy and other special admissions categories that have tended to favor the wealthy.
“The real questions are a) Is it fair? and b) Can we afford it as a nation when it means we are doing less than we could be to make college realistic, accessible, and affordable?” says Jerome Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California (USC).
These are good questions, now part of the zeitgeist. Bernie Sanders has put questions of access to higher eduction front and center on the public policy menu by floating his free college plan; paying for higher education is only one facet of the access issue..
We now live in a much more unequal country than the one I grew up in, and we’ve all tacitly accepted that college admission is yet another arena in which the contest is rigged. My father and his two brothers were each high school guidance counsellors, and many members of my extended family are involved in the education game in some way. So for years I’ve been hearing about the deterioration of the dysfunctional university admissions system.
According to the Christian Science Monitor:
More admissions professionals are grappling with how to pull back the curtain on what they do, including by attending conferences like the recent “Reclaiming Public Trust in Admissions and Higher Education” at USC. “Nothing we do in admission and recruitment should be a secret,” Professor Lucido says. “Every admissions space should be available to all without influence. … If you’re going to have any kind of special admission categories, they should be open and transparent.”
Alas, some things that make the UK system nominally fairer are unlikely to be adopted at elite US institutions. One can apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but not both, which reduces the number of applications each institution must consider, and keeps each from being swamped by applicants. Oxbridge tutors conduct admissions interviews, making it possible to undertake a serious, substantive grilling. These practices are unlikely to be adopted at elite US institutions, where the faculty are happy to offload the entire admissions enterprise to a separate, standalone, administrative department.
So, I’m not sure slogans about transparency achieve very much.
There has been some some student pressure to eliminate legacy admissions at Brown, Duke, and several other schools, according to the WSJ. These efforts remain isolated to individual schools and they have not coalesced into any wider, movement.
The Hopkins move is a step in the right direction – and the institution is blazing a trail that other institutions may elect to follow.
Unless and until they do, legacy admissions will be yet another example of just how the rich get richer.