Just four days after the Supreme Court rejected racial preferences in college admissions, a consortium of black and Latino interest groups filed a complaint against Harvard regarding a different kind of preference: the special consideration given to the children of former students. The file notes that the practice of heritage admissions disproportionately benefits white applicants. If racial considerations are strictly limited, the plaintiffs argue, other considerations that effectively favor some racial groups must also go.
It is a powerful argument. In 2018, Princeton University, my employer, accepted about 5 percent of applicants overall, but for legacies the rate was about 30 percent. Why set aside a special access road for predominantly white children who are already the beneficiaries of so many social and economic advantages? Consider the evidence that legacy admissions aren’t even increasing alumni giving — presumably the strongest rationale for the preference — and the policy begins to seem not only immoral but completely senseless.
However, prior to the dismantling of affirmative action, hereditary acknowledgments had some unexpected and surprising effects. Legacy students gained a leg up in the admissions process, but they were already on the road to success, just by virtue of being born into privilege. In fact, it is worth considering evidence that going to an elite school like Princeton, as opposed to a less selective college, made no difference to their earnings later in life.
One group, however, received a large economic boost from going to elite schools: poor students, students of color and students whose parents did not have college. And that’s because elite colleges have attached them to students born into privilege — the same type of student that legacy preferences admit in such large numbers.
We might assume that legacy admissions help privileged students at the expense of non-privileged ones. But I would wager that legacy students, if eliminated, are far more likely to be replaced by other types of privileged students than by underprivileged ones. And in ways that are far less obvious, legacy students, with their deep social and cultural connections, are part of the reason less advantaged students get so much out of elite schools.
With the end of affirmative action, this is completely out of the question. Estimates indicate that the percentage of black, Latino, and Native American students at selective colleges will decline significantly in the coming years, in some cases returning to 1960s levels. Colleges and universities serious about fairness should eliminate all preferences—not just hereditary ones—that favor the privileged. But as they redesign their systems, it’s worth taking time to consider how the presence of privilege can help the disadvantaged.
Start asking yourself what students get out of elite schools. I would like to believe that the most important advantage of these colleges is the exceptional knowledge that professors can deliver in the classroom. But if elite schools provided special intellectual growth and professional training—what social scientists call human capital—privileged students would benefit greatly from them. And there is no good evidence that they do.
Instead, other forms of capital play a greater role: symbolic capital (the value of being associated with prestigious institutions), social capital (the value of your network) and cultural capital (the value of exposure to high-status practices and manners). Graduating from an elite school pays off on all three counts: It gets you into a prestigious organization, offers you connections to people with friends in high places, and inculcates you in the conventions and etiquette of high-status settings.
Students who come from privileged backgrounds arrive for freshman years having already accumulated most of this capital. Attending an elite college doesn’t add much for them. But for students from poor backgrounds—students who are less likely to have a ready network of rich, influential connections, or have a common set of cultural references over which to bond with powerful gatekeepers—an elite college experience can be. transformative.
Research has repeatedly established this. Your chances of getting a job at any workplace increases considerably if your social network connects you to it, and the more prestigious the school, the rarer the network. The sociologist Lauren Rivera, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, also showed the “cultural fit” effect when applying for a job: Elite recruiters respond favorably to the kinds of cultural “similarities”—shared literary references, playing the “right” sport—that students take at fancy colleges, precisely because those common traits reminds employees of themselves.
Likewise, the Boston University sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack showed that students from underrepresented communities can become relatively privileged as a result of attending elite schools, where they develop relationships with socially advantaged peers and pick up valuable cultural cues.
Of course, no college has ever instituted a fast track for legacy applicants solely as a favor to minority and low-income students. But the fact remains that if elite colleges decided to admit only minority and low-income students, this effect would be much less pronounced. With the end of affirmative action, the strange upside of legacy admissions fades — and the policy becomes impossible to justify.
I would be happy to see legacy admissions go away. But I don’t imagine that removing them would do much to balance the scale in favor of those from historically marginalized and excluded backgrounds. Legacy students are only a small proportion of the pool of privileged children who are rich in symbolic, social and cultural capital. Even without the additional boost currently receiving inheritances, it would be almost impossible to offset the benefits of wealthy families who can pay for all the experiences and qualities that make their children seem miraculously, naturally, qualified.
Shamus Khan (@shamuskhan) is a professor of sociology and American studies at Princeton and author of “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.”
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