As I read Travis Greene’s excellent commentary about his frustration with other people’s assumptions that his race would be the deciding factor in his admission to college, I felt a bit guilty. As a (white) senior in the midst of the college applications madness, I have, like many others, acquired the notion that a different skin color is the magic key to admissions success. Sure, one look at the national high school graduation rate of African Americans (50.2%) and Hispanics (53.2%) compared with that of whites (74.9%) indicates that something needs to be done to level the playing field. But in the frenzied quest to get into a great college, self interest trumps more benevolent impulses every time. No matter how you play it, affirmative action seems just the tiniest bit unfair. Why should less qualified students ever get in over more qualified students?
Anyone who genuinely wants to answer this question would be far better served overlooking racial affirmative action and examining instead the admissions benefits conferred upon legacy applicants. (A legacy is a student whose family member has attended the particular institution.) Let’s use the case of Yale University, that bastion of academic prestige, as our example. In 2004, African Americans accounted for 7% of the University’s total enrollment, while that same year, the US Census reports that African Americans made up 12.4% of the US population. The disparity is slightly higher among Hispanics. Clearly, everybody else trying to get into Yale needs not fear that they will be preempted by scores and scores of beneficiaries of racial affirmative action. Conversely, Yale’s student body consists of approximately 14% of legacies. I don’t think the Census carries statistics on percent of the US population that graduated from Yale, but I can say with some confidence that the figure would not approach 1%. The legacy applicant preference in the admissions process is practically the antitheses of racial affirmative action: while the latter is supposed to foster a sense of inclusion and opportunity, the former smacks of elitism and exclusivity.
Admissions officers at Yale argue that the qualifications of legacy applicants often equal, and sometimes exceed, that of the rest of the class. But remember, these are almost always the kids who have been given every educational advantage imaginable. And one only has to look at our current President, a legacy admit to Yale, to realize that special status can help out the occasional intellectual lightweight, especially if he has a senator father. And why, if legacies are so eminently qualified, should they need the extra consideration anyway? Yale stands by its policy. Its dean of undergraduate admissions, Richard Shaw, admits that legacy applicants have a better chance of being accepted than non-legacy students, and is quoted in the Yale Daily as saying, "All other things being equal, [legacy] gives a slight edge, and we have no qualms about that.”
Perhaps I am focusing on Yale too much to the detriment of my overall argument. (It’s obviously a fine school, and I wouldn’t get in, even if I did have “connections.”) Legacy preference is not limited to the Ivy League. Schools as diverse as William and Mary, Swarthmore College, and the University of Maryland-College Park, all regard it as a factor that holds at least some weight with the admissions committee.
At George Mason High School, the majority of students are white, with college-educated parents. Some undoubtedly also have parents who went to the specific college that they themselves someday hope to attend. Are we going to view the “slight edge” of these kids the same way we view the advantage of students who might benefit from racial affirmative action? Probably not. And that disparity itself is just the tiniest bit unfair.