The policy of legacy admissions has recently been called an outdated relic of British aristocratic tradition, and a practice that promotes special exceptions and entitlement instead of ability.
Yet these specific criticisms were not voiced by disenfranchised students, but instead come from some of the most privileged and powerful men in the country: President George W. Bush and vice presidential candidate John Edwards.
Despite their differences, both men have acknowledged their dissatisfaction with legacy admissions programs at colleges and universities, including Penn, that give special preference to the children of alumni -- even though Bush and presidential candidate John Kerry themselves may have benefited from the policy at Yale University.
Edwards made the issue a large part of his platform late last year as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. His plan for urban America included a statement on education that "legacy admissions preferences for children of alumni stack the deck against students who may be first in their family to go to college."
Legacy admissions are "a birthright out of 18th century British aristocracy, not 21st century American democracy," Edwards said while stumping on the campaign trail.
Bush told a group of minority journalists in August that college admissions "ought to be based on merit" and that no special exceptions should be made for certain people.
Some schools have considered amending their policies -- including Texas A&M; University, which voluntarily ended the practice in March. Other officials, including those at the University, believe that the real issue is federal interference in long-standing university practices.
"One of the glories of higher education in this country is that we are not an organ of the government," University President Amy Gutmann said. "We serve the public, and we serve them well by not being controlled in ways that are really unproductive and unnecessary by government."
University officials tell legacy applicants that their legacy status is worth more if they apply early decision, and they have a better chance of admission at that time.
However, only 14 percent of the Class of '08 is made up of legacy students. Legacy status at the University means having either a parent or grandparent who attended, although the qualifications differ from school to school.
Although the admissions rate was higher for legacy students than for non-legacies -- 38 percent of legacy students were admitted, versus 21 percent for the rest of the class -- legacy applicants are as qualified as the rest of the class, according to Dean of Admissions Lee Stetson.
"It's not a carte blanche," Stetson said of applying to the University as a legacy candidate.
Since many schools have similar policies, some question why politicians are even taking on the issue at all.
"Out of all the education issues, they pick the issue of legacy admissions?" said Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "In many ways, we were surprised that presidential candidates were talking about institutional policies at that level."
"I sort of start quaking in my boots when senators and presidents want to start [creating] institutional policy," she said.
Whatever the outcome on Election Day, there is no guarantee that either presidential candidate could actually accomplish policy changes during the next four years.
But heated debate between politicians and higher education officials has already begun at the federal level. Legacy admissions policies are challenged in Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) proposed College Quality, Affordability and Diversity Improvement Act, which is a part of the reauthorization bill for the Higher Education Act. The bill must be reauthorized every five years.
Kennedy's bill would financially penalize universities that use early decision admissions to offer extra help to legacy applicants, and also have minority student graduation rates 10 percent below the overall graduation rate of the school.
A fundamental assumption taken in this legislation, however, is that legacy admissions decrease the number of available places in incoming classes for those who are more qualified.
Stetson argues that legacy admissions do not take away from any other group. He justifies the place of legacy students in noting that alumni are the University's taxpayers, and that the legacy policy "allows a tradition to continue."
"I think the senators ... are getting at the issue of access for people of all backgrounds, [but] our experience has been that we have room for everybody," he said.
"I'll be surprised if this issue has legs in Congress," he said. "I know there's not a lot of support for it across the country."
At the University, at least, legacy students are not statistically distinct from their peers. In fact, when comparing graduation rates and cumulative grade point averages, legacies could be considered better students -- if only slightly -- according to Bernard Lentz, Penn's director of institutional research and analysis.
In a sample of students matriculating as first-time college students at the University between 1991 and 1998, Lentz found the five-year graduation rate of legacy students to be 91 percent, while non-legacy students had a graduation rate of only 87 percent.
Legacy students graduating since 1999 also received higher grades than their peers, with an average cumulative GPA of 3.22. Non-legacy students had an average GPA of 3.19. In the nine years prior to 1999, the two groups had almost identical grades.
But despite these statistics, and similar numbers from other schools around the country, there are "plenty of people who support" the Senate bill], Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said. He refused to name specific organizations, but said they include student associations and civil rights groups.
The proposed changes to the bill are designed to aid underprivileged students and promote diversity, but many institutions believe that the bill could actually hurt minority students -- and universities themselves.
The bill "would fundamentally alter the longstanding independence of colleges and universities to admit students without federal interference," President of the American Council on Education David Ward wrote in a letter to Kennedy on behalf of a diverse group of 12 postsecondary associations.
"We vigorously oppose the proposal under consideration and urge that you not include it in any forthcoming legislation," Ward wrote.
He noted that the Supreme Court decided in both Sweezy v. New Hampshire in 1957 and in Gratz v. Bollinger last summer that a university's right to choose its students was one of the fundamental freedoms of an institution of higher education.
Ward asserted that "the idea assumes that a relationship exists between early admissions, legacy admissions and the graduation of minority students," when there is, "in fact, no relationship at all."
Still, the American Federation of Teachers supports Kennedy's proposal. AFT Legislative Director Charlotte Fraas wrote in a letter to Kennedy that "the AFT is pleased that the QUAD Act would address the shortcomings of our higher education system in retaining minority and low-income students."
Congress was expected to vote on all bills associated with reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this fall. However, the congressional session ended Oct. 11, leaving the current bill still in effect until Congress reconvenes in January to vote again on the changes.Comments powered by Disqus
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