Family ties: an unfair advantage?

Amid debate over racial preferences, legacy admissions are suddenly cast in a harsher light.

At Penn, they "take it very seriously." At Michigan it "gets you extra points." At Harvard, it "is not ignored," and at Notre Dame, they are "very open" to it. "It" is "legacy": an admissions designation used by most private and some public universities for applicants whose relatives attended the school, and who, as such, get some degree of preferential treatment. It's a practice as old as colleges themselves , and is intended to boost alumni support and donations and foster a sense of community.

It's also racist, argue its critics.

Following fast on the footsteps of last year's Supreme Court entry into the delicate area of affirmative-action admissions, lawmakers are taking a hard look at this so-called reverse affirmative action,which gives an edge to those whose parents and grandparents went to selective colleges at a time when most minorities there were few and far between.

Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts - a Harvard legacy himself - recently introduced a bill requiring colleges to disclose the race and economic status of first-year students related to alumni.

Such a requirement, he hopes, would force colleges to reveal how the preferences disproportionately benefit affluent white students, and might embarrass them into limiting such preferences on their own.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards, who, on his stump has often described legacies as "a birthright out of 18th-century Brit- ish aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy," has begun calling for an outright ban on the practice.

Then, last month, Texas A&M University, under pressure to review its legacy policies after it dropped its affirmative-action program, announced that the school would not wait for a law to tell it what to do - and abolished the practice, fueling the debate even further.

"Public perceptions of the fairness and equity of our process clearly are important and require prompt action to deal with an obvious inconsistency in an admissions strategy based on individual merit," said A&M President Robert Gates in a written statement.

Typically, every year some 1,500 to 2,000 first-year applicants to A&M receive special consideration because of legacy points, revealed a report in the Houston Chronicle. Most of that number don't need that special consideration to get in, but, according to the report, 312 whites were admitted last year who wouldn't have made the cut without their alumni ties. Legacy considerations made the difference in 2003 for only 27 Hispanics and six blacks - which should not come as a big surprise since few Hispanics and no blacks were among the student body at Texas A&M until 1963. Up until 1975 A&M was still 92 percent white.

Texas A&M's legacy policy is far from unique. Amherst College in Massachusetts, for example, accepts nearly half of alumni children who apply, compared with 17 percent of all applicants. Sons and daughters of alumni make up more than 10 percent of students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and a whopping 23 percent at Notre Dame. While legacy students are becoming more diverse, reflecting the surge in minority enrollment in the 1970s, whites still make up the vast majority. At Harvard last year, only 7.6 percent of legacy applicants accepted were black, Hispanic or native American, compared with 17.8 percent of all successful applicants.

But, far from following A&M's lead, most universities across the country are chafing at the idea of additional restrictions on their admissions policies and speaking out against the Kennedy bill.

"It's an unwanted intrusion on the institution's ability to set its own admissions policies," says Julie Green Bataille, a spokeswoman for Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who said the university does not make public the number of legacy students in each class, even though their application asks applicants to note any such relationship.

Duke University Provost Peter Lange, in turn, stresses that establishing alumni loyalty through policies like the legacy admissions policy helps universities fund other programs, including those that increase diversity. "You can't pull out one thread and ignore other ways of promoting diversity," he says. "And the loyalty of alums is very important to a whole range of things we can offer, including the kind of funding that allows us to offer substantial amounts of money for financial aid."

Alumni supply 28 percent of private donations to higher education - $6.83 billion in the 2000-2001 school year, according to a Wall Street Journal study. Furthermore, say supporters of legacy admission, students of alumni fortify school traditions and have more active parents.

Eliana and Tatiana Monacella, twins from Florida who are both first-year students at Georgetown University, grin when asked about legacy admissions. "Our dad went here," they say in unison. "Sure, that made us feel more secure when applying," they admit. "We felt we somehow already belonged here."

But, they stress, flipping long manes of hair, their legacy status alone would not have been enough. "I never slacked because I thought I was a shoo-in, or anything like that," says Eliana. "I can understand some people might think it an unfair leg up, but I have gotten over it," chimes in her sister.

Rami Turvayai and Javiar Stark, Georgetown seniors, gaze at the twins as they pass by. Neither of the young men is a legacy, but neither do they have any problem with the concept. "I'm a minority - that helped too," says Stark, "Every part of your application sets you apart so you can't pick the process apart and point at one element which seems unfair."

Turvayai is a first-generation American whose parents are from Iraq. His father went to the University of Basra, and he was sure that fact impressed his interviewer when he applied. "Getting into college is like the rest of life. Nothing is 100 percent fair," he says, and then adds: "It's only in America that we try so hard to pretend it is."

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