unnamed
Photo: Camille Rapay

GROUP THINK is The Daily Pennsylvanian’s round table section, where we throw a question at the columnists and see what answers stick. Read your favorite columnist, or read them all.

This week's question: Based on a recent DP report, legacy students make up a sixth of the entire undergraduate student population at Penn. What do you make of this? Should Penn's Admissions Office change its policies regarding legacy students? If so, what should it do? If not, why?

Spencer Swanson | Spencer's Space

I do not personally think that Penn’s policy for admitting legacy students is necessarily bad, as it serves a useful purpose. In 2008, alumni donations accounted for 27.5 percent of all donations to higher education in the United States. Without legacy admissions, Penn would not be able to have its enormous $10.72 billion endowment, which fundamentally supports its students, allowing them access to amazing facilities, professors and research opportunities. Although I do not have extensive knowledge on the topic, it seems as though legacy admissions benefit the student body and the University more than it detracts from them. 

Cameron Dichter | Real Talk

Before we begin to debate the relative unfairness of legacy admissions, I’d like to ask why anyone thought this process was a meritocracy to begin with. Sure the advantage given to legacy students is especially egregious — no one earns their alumni parents — and therefore an easy target for critique, but are we really going to pretend that it’s so different from the advantages all wealthy students possess?

Expensive SAT tutors and private schools clearly give students a leg up in the admissions process, otherwise parents wouldn't pay for them. And that isn't to say that wealthy students — legacy or otherwise — didn't work hard to get into Penn. They just had some advantages that other students didn't.

Rather than debating whether certain students “deserve” to be here we should instead be focusing on the economic disparities that the college admissions system has institutionalized. The real issue is that the economic and racial inequalities in our University demographics reflect the inequalities in our country. And for all of the backlash that affirmative action faces, the reality is that even with it, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at top colleges than 35 years ago.

Isabella Simonetti | Simonetti Says So

A university has numerous important responsibilities: caring for its students, providing an excellent education, cultivating a sense of community and offering resources for mental and physical health. Donations from the parents of legacy students allow Penn to give many of these things to its students. Additionally, giving preferential treatment to legacy applicants strengthens the connection between alumni and Penn. 

But I believe Penn should stop giving legacy applicants a leg up in the admissions process. 

If a legacy student wants to attend Penn, he has the opportunity to apply and be accepted on his own merit. The admission of less qualified students due solely to their family’s connection to the school, weakens the academic environment, and, some could argue, preserves a sense of entitlement on Penn’s campus. 

Furthermore, it is disingenuous to accept money from alumni who are donating solely so their children or grandchildren will be accepted. Instead, the administration should work to make Penn a place where its students are proud to attend. That is the ultimate way to guarantee alumni loyalty through donation. 

Penn has a rich history, and the generations of families who will continue to attend Penn can contribute to that if they meet the admissions standards set for all students. 

Lucy Hu | Fresh Take

There is no question that morally, legacy applicants do not inherently deserve any advantage in elite institutions’ admissions policies. But whether Penn should uphold preferential admissions for legacies is not a moral issue.

This is really a question of data; what’s necessary is a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate whether the net benefit is positive. We need to look at the sources of Penn’s funding. Ideally, we could also categorize donations by multi-generation Penn families, versus single-generation alumni. However, Penn’s information is not so specific.

According to Penn’s annual financial report from 2015-2016, 2.3 percent of Penn’s operating revenue came from contributions and donor support (for comparison, 10.5 percent was from tuition and fees). Seemingly negligible, this totaled $200 million.

The question then becomes whether or not you want to assume a positive correlation between generations at Penn and likeliness to donate. I believe it to be a fair assumption, and most would agree. As attachment to Penn grows, so does willingness to contribute resources.

So where does Penn’s money go? In 2016, 51 percent of endowment expenditure went towards instruction, and 18 percent went towards student financial aid. It’s apparent that money from donors comes back to improve education and help other students afford a Penn education.

Then what are the costs? Perhaps the sacrifice of meritocracy? Maybe the replacement of more “deserving” students? But is there any data proving that acceptances were undeserved? Is it really plausible that 16 percent of the student population is unqualified? Do not forget that Penn has high standards of admission, without substantial exception. This perceived “cost” is negligible. Given the arbitrariness of college admissions, it’s unfair for anyone but Dean of Admissions, Eric Furda, to make claims that a student does not deserve to be here. Additionally, Penn takes the chance that accepting one additional legacy student paves the way for a multitude of beneficial resources for more students in the future.

At the end of the day, donor contributions only make up 2 percent of operating revenue and are not relatively significant to Penn’s funding and ability to provide financial aid to other students. However, in absolute dollar terms, donors benefit Penn and legacy families are more likely to contribute to that. Penn should not give any severe advantages to these applicants, but leveraging legacy students in order to provide more students with better opportunities is wise and warranted. Ultimately, the benefits outweigh the costs and Penn’s policy displays the foresight required of an elite learning institution.

Amy Chan | Chances Are

My first thought was, "That's exorbitant." In a way, though, it fits the expectations of an elite, exclusive university, and I am not surprised. Universities and higher education have always existed as this great paradox. Nowadays, they claim themselves as the equalizing force, institutions that actually enable citizens to achieve the ideal democracy that American government and legislation have never been able to fully realize. Studies have shown that people of both low and high-income families have approximately the same success rates upon college graduation. Simultaneously, higher education has had a history of exclusion from the very beginning, building a list of resentments and "not-good-enough"s, which include people of color and women. After all, the very first colleges were founded primarily to educate clergymen, excluding all the rest. 

As universities and higher education continue to be pulled between these two extremes, I believe that they should continue to try to draw themselves toward the democratic end. What I would suggest is slowly but surely lowering the number of legacy students admitted each year. Instead, if the school admits students primarily focusing on merit and properly educates them, these students will eventually gain a considerable level of success and, out of gratitude, give back. There are other factors involved in alumni contribution besides just a quid pro quo theoretical legacy. There is nostalgia, affection for the school and appreciation for all the school has done. In turn, we would reduce the materialistic, business side of universities and approach that egalitarian ideal.

All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.