How Wealthy Families Manipulate Admissions at Elite U.S. Universities
When Georgetown University announced in September plans 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 Georgetown 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 2000s, 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: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, documented how 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 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 SAT, which had a possible range of 400 to 1600. Another examined admissions decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities and concluded that the odds of a legacy being accepted at the alma mater of one of his or her parents are more than seven times better than an ordinary applicant's.
Polls indicate that most Americans disapprove of legacy preference. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 52 percent of respondents said colleges should not consider whether an applicant's parent is a graduate, 35 percent said it should be a minor factor, and 11 percent a major factor.
Yet nothing has changed. In fact, the practice has only intensified. The allure of rewarding potential benefactors with an admissions break for their children, especially in an era when colleges are increasingly dependent on private giving, has simply proven too strong. A decade after my book came out, sources still pepper me with new indignities. One example: Despite finishing dead last in his prep school class, the scion of a prominent business family was admitted to a highly rated university where his mother is an alumna and donor.
The allure of rewarding potential benefactors with an admissions break for their children, especially in an era when colleges are increasingly dependent on private giving, has simply proven too strong.
As they reject more applicants every year, most top universities still make room for as many alumni children as they did a decade ago. Legacies make up 22 percent of last year's freshmen at Notre Dame, 13 percent at Yale, and between 18 and 19 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Princeton, admissions dean Janet Lavin Rapelye told me, legacies have comprised between 11 and 15 percent of every freshman class for a quarter century; last year it's at the upper end of the range. "They tend to be very good students who have achieved at a high level in their high schools," she said. "They have taken advantage of the advantages that have been given to them."
Although the acceptance rate for legacies at elite universities has declined, these candidates have maintained or widened their edge over others. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, admitted 38 percent of alumni children in 2005, as against 21 percent of all applicants. This year it took 22 percent of legacies, versus 9 percent overall. So legacies were accepted at more than twice the average rate last year, a bigger proportional advantage than in 2005.
Elite colleges have become adept at insulating the legacy edge from criticism by linking it to preferences for more sympathetic groups, from slave descendants to students who are the first generation in their families to go to college. Recent freshman classes at U. Penn have contained almost as many first-generation students (13 percent) as alumni children and grandchildren (16 percent).
"There's a nice symmetry to that," said admissions dean Eric J. Furda. "The door to the Penn tradition is there, but also for students coming into the college environment for the first time" in family history.
One out of every 10 Georgetown undergraduates is a legacy. The university admits 29 percent of alumni children, as against 16 percent of applicants overall. Tying the slavery and legacy preferences together "makes some sense to me," Georgetown admissions dean Charles Deacon said. "If you're going to defend a legacy policy, surely you should apply it to" other members of the Georgetown community who were mistreated historically. Other elite universities that owned slaves are discussing whether to adopt a similar admissions policy, he said. He added that Georgetown will forever give an edge to the descendants of all slaves whose labor has benefited the university, even if affirmative action is banned. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld affirmative action in admissions, like in June 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas. Eliminating affirmative action in college admissions, as several states have done, often spurs a backlash against legacy preference.
Meanwhile, colleges woo alumni children more assiduously than ever. The last decade has seen a proliferation of perks: legacy luncheons, workshops on application strategy, early dormitory move-in, and even lucrative scholarships. Ten years ago, as I noted in The Price of Admission, alumni children were "overwhelmingly white and rich." At the time, though, admissions deans assured me that the legacy ranks would become more diverse as the children of minorities who gained access to elite universities with the advent of affirmative action reached college age. But that doesn't seem to have happened. Based on a Harvard Crimson survey of freshmen entering Harvard in 2015, alumni children remain a homogeneous group. Legacies constituted 16 percent of the class—but they were one-fourth of white freshmen and more than 40 percent of freshmen with household incomes of $500,000 or more.
Closely associated with legacy preference—and also favoring the rich—is early admission. It typically requires a binding college commitment, hindering low-income students from shopping around for the best financial aid package. Early applicants, who are often alumni children, tend to be affluent and savvy about the college admissions game. Days after my book was published, Harvard announced that, to be fair to minority and low-income applicants, it was abandoning early admission. Princeton and the University of Virginia followed its lead. A few years later, though, all three universities reversed their decisions, because many top candidates wanted to apply early.
Since then early admission has expanded nationwide. U. Penn enrolled 54 percent of its class this year under early decision, up from about 45 percent a decade ago. Since students admitted early are locked into attending Penn, they boost the university's yield rate, or proportion of accepted students who enroll, which is often regarded as a barometer of a school's standing. Penn's website encourages alumni children and grandchildren to apply early to be "given the most consideration."
Low-income students on financial aid account for much of the growth in Penn's early decision enrollment, especially because the school instituted a policy in 2008 of meeting all need with grants instead of loans, Furda said. Still, he added, "I don't think it will ever be to the point that it's as diverse as our regular decision pool."
One reason college admissions offices still genuflect to major donors is that other sources of revenue aren't keeping pace with costs. In the past decade many top universities have increased financial aid. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford give a full ride, including tuition plus room and board, to students whose family income is below $65,000. At Stanford, parents who earn less than $125,000 pay no tuition.
Where is the money coming from? Not tuition alone. Intimidated by widespread criticism of price hikes, private colleges reduced their average annual increase in tuition and fees from 3 percent between 1995–'96 and 2005–'06 to 2.4 percent between 2005–'06 and 2015–'16, according to the College Board. Notre Dame's financial aid budget has risen 50 percent since 2010, almost twice as fast as the price of attending the university, according to Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment. Penn's undergraduate financial aid budget has soared 155 percent since 2005, more than double the 65 percent rise in tuition.
"Recognizing that the market is more competitive and that we're constrained in our ability to raise prices, we are going to be more dependent on philanthropy," said Donald Heller, provost and vice president of academic affairs and professor of education at the University of San Francisco. "That means there's probably more pressure on admissions offices around legacies and development admits"—applicants recommended by the development (i.e., fundraising) office.
And here's the kicker: The percentage of alumni donating to the country's top 20 universities dropped over the last 10 years, but the average alumni contribution nearly doubled—meaning that this crucial source of support is coming from large checks written by a relative few. In 2015 alone, seven individuals made gifts of more than $100 million apiece to higher education, including one bequest. And as the ultrarich boost philanthropy to universities, the price for giving their progeny an admissions edge has escalated correspondingly. "People think that if they give a couple hundred thousand or a million they're big donors. That's just no longer the case at major universities," Notre Dame's Bishop said. On the other hand, if someone gives $15 million, "which could fund 10 to 15 scholarship kids in perpetuity, do you let their children have some special interest? Yes. But they still have to be quite good."
Ten years ago elite universities were already so selective and gave preference to so many groups (legacies, development admits, athletes, underrepresented minorities, etc.) that candidates who didn't fit any of these categories faced steep odds. In an interview for my book, Daniel Saracino, then Notre Dame's assistant provost for enrollment, told me, "The poor shmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on water."
Today the prospects for these unconnected applicants, who are predominantly middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, are even bleaker. The poor shmucks have to walk on water—during a tsunami. Saracino, now a higher education consultant, switched metaphors in a recent conversation. "The pie isn't getting any bigger, but the pieces all want to grow a little bit," he said. "It will come at the cost of the everyday kid."
Daniel Golden is a journalist, an editor at ProPublica, and the author of The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.