Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Dilemma: Legacies

By Richard Vedder

Shikha Daimia has written a fascinating story in the February issue of Reason magazine about college legacies. The author finds it perplexing that scholars who crusade against affirmative action like Stephen Thernstrom are ambivalent about attacking preferential legacy admissions. Children of alumni get an edge and are more likely to be let in than non alums at most elite private schools (exception: Cal Tech). Daimia considers this form of discrimination no less invidious than discrimination based on race or gender.

Legacies reduce intergenerational mobility, perpetuate the status quo, favor whites (who dominated student bodies in previous generations) over non-whites, and native-born Americans over immigrants. They are not in keeping with the notion that America has a merit-driven, egalitarian society. They also reveal the hypocrisy of many universities who profess to be looking for the best and brightest, when, in some cases, they are truly looking for the richest and most loyal future alums.

Should we have an anti-legacy rule imposed nationally? This is where it becomes sticky. The last thing America needs is for the federal government to dictate how universities operate. The strength of the American system is in its diversity, and in the lack of central control. This adds to the intellectual vitality, the richness of educational offerings, etc., of American higher education. Why should the federal government tell private organizations like Harvard and Yale who they should or should not accept?

However, there is a counterargument to that. So-called private universities receive tons of public monies, and one can argue that the government should not provide grants to institutions that discriminate on the basis of one's parents association to the school --the government is, in effect, subsidizing behavior that is not widely accepted amongst the general population.

On balance, I don't want government getting involved in college admissions any more than it already is. But I think I would in general support policies that lead colleges to reach their decisions strictly based on the merit of those seeking admission.

No comments: