Opinion guest column

Does merit matter in America?

Why I don’t want my grandchild to go to Duke or Stanford

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Ratio of students from top 1% income bracket to students from bottom 60% income bracket at "top ten" schools

It is the quintessential American way to expect that merit matters, in few places more so than the admission systems at our universities. So I was as happy as anyone to see last year's unravelling of pay-for-play criminal college admissions. The scandal had propelled unspectacular candidates into elite universities and has now resulted in the criminal conviction of numerous offending parties.

But we would be foolish to allow the celebrity of some of these conspirators to blind us to the far greater scandal: the generational injustice of legacy admissions.

It turns out, many parents don’t need to pay out millions of dollars to shady “admissions consultants.” Instead, they need only to flash their diploma to grant their children an unjustified advantage in gaining admission to their alma mater. Every admissions cycle, this well-heeled system entrenches the privilege of alumni children at the expense of qualified, hard-working — but non-legacy — applicants.

How pervasive is the injustice? Pretty pervasive, if one assesses data from The New York Times from a 1991 cohort (approximately the class of 2013) that compared the percentage of students from the top one percent income bracket to the entire bottom 60% income bracket. The study included schools that practice legacy admissions (Duke, Stanford, and every Ivy League school) as well as “top ten” schools that don’t (just MIT and Caltech — yes, it’s a short list of two schools).

At most “top ten” schools, more students are drawn from the top one percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60%. In fact, the ratio of those admitted students from those disparate groups, greater than one at most Ivy League schools versus approximately 0.25 at MIT and Caltech, highlight just how advantageous it is to be the child of an alumnus at a legacy admission school, since surveys show that graduates from each of these schools earn similar salaries and would therefore be expected to contribute in similar proportion to the one percent. Even worse, preferential access becomes a self-perpetuating pyramid scheme as long as alumni have children — the Harvard Kennedys being one example of the effect of preferential access across multiple generations.  

What’s not to like if you’re an alumnus from one of these schools? Coasting on your achievements, your descendants can happily carry forward your scholarly legacy. But, aside from a few egos, few are served well by such a system. 

With the practice of legacy admissions, American education will be marred by privileges of birthright. Legacy students will either openly embrace their entitlement or, if they have an iota of self-awareness and fairness, be plagued with self-doubt over their worthiness as an admitted student. 

It’s on universities to turn their backs on this system of favoritism and embrace the full benefits of merit-based admissions. In the meantime, since my children attended Duke and Stanford, I’ll encourage my grandchildren to apply elsewhere. Maybe, if they work hard enough, they’ll attend Caltech or MIT and know that they and their classmates each gained admission the old-fashioned way — by earning it.

Charles Theuer is a member of the Class of 1985.