Affirmative Action

Oxford and Cambridge Universities, inarguably among the most prestigious universities in the world, outmoded legacy admissions even though doing so meant accepting revenue losses. Legacy admissions remain a cherished part of the Ivy League university system in America, though, revealing an ironic scenario. Suddenly the United States appears the more class-oriented, elitist society vs. Great Britain. American independence was fought partially over the pull toward increased egalitarianism in society. In spite of the ideals that still characterize American culture: individual opportunity and the American Dream, our culture clings to outmoded practices that perpetuate income disparity and class conflict Affirmative action has offered promise to reverse centuries of racial, ethnic and gender-based discrimination. Ostensibly crafted to create a more perfect union that offers truly equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens, affirmative action has been under siege. Affirmative action programs and their goals are threatened by those who resent the notion that women and people of color might achieve upward social mobility. On the other hand, legacy admissions constitute little more than nepotism. Legacy admissions to the most prestigious American universities enables oligarchy and erases the possibility for genuine social, political, and economic change.

Bradley (2006) describes legacy admissions frankly as "affirmative action for the rich." Legacy admissions accomplish what affirmative action is trying to reverse: hundreds of years of discrimination. At Harvard University, a full forty percent of legacy applicants are admitted to the school. Most Ivy League schools, including Yale, Cornell, and Princeton admit similar proportions of legacy students. Legacy students end up comprising almost fifteen percent of the student body. Not only is the very fact of preferential treatment shocking, but legacy admissions also mean a dumbed-down student body. If legacy students are granted special status then their test scores and grades can be lower than all other qualified candidates. Many mediocre students end up at top-notch universities, filling spots that could have been granted to more deserving candidates -- and those from different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

Proponents of legacy admissions claim that "children of alumni bring a sense of tradition and a link to a school's history that other students do not," (Weiss 2005). University administrators would also point out that legacy students equal more revenues for the school, inarguably one of the main reason admissions procedures remain biased toward students of alumni. Even if "continuity across the generations" were important, advocates of legacy admissions tend to be those who benefit from it most: the wealthy, well-heeled, already elite members of American society (Wilkins 2001). President Bush is one of the most notorious recipient of legacy admissions preferential treatment. His floundering performance at Yale University shows that legacy admissions does education a disservice. Wilkins (2001) points out that many supporters of legacy admissions are hypocrites who express "outright hostility for affirmative-action policies for minority students while saying virtually nothing about the affirmative help routinely given to alumni children."

If America's Ivy League is not willing to undo the damage legacy admissions has done toward creating an oligarchic nation, then its universities should at least be made responsible -- by law if possible -- for employing similarly-designed affirmative action programs in their admissions policies. If schools like Cornell routinely mail letters to the sons and daughters of alumni encouraging them to apply for admissions, then Cornell should also be forced to mail letters of encouragement to disadvantaged students around the country (Weiss 2005). Affirmative action is more necessary at schools that practice legacy admissions to ensure a diverse student body and to help create a more egalitarian society.

Sabbagh (2003) suggests that affirmative action is "not to be understood as a limited exception to the constitutional guarantee of equality, but rather as a powerful instrument for dismantling the forms of social stratification that are inherently contrary" to the Equal Protection Clause embedded in the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court avowed the right of universities to practice affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger. Race is permitted to be a factor in the admissions process, even when quotas are disallowed. In a survey of presidents of twenty-five of the highest-ranked universities and also twenty-five of the country's highest-ranked liberal arts colleges, no president admitted to being "opposed to any form of preferential admissions based on race," and almost half agreed with the statement, "All credentials being equal, I am in favor of giving the admissions nod to an applicant from a disadvantaged racial group," (American Council on Education 2002). With legal and situational factors backing up the practice of affirmative action, there is no reason to stop using race, ethnicity, and other mitigating factors in the admissions process.

The difference between affirmative action and legacy admissions is clear: the former advantages the disadvantaged; the latter empowers the already empowered. Historically disadvantaged groups of people, including women, need the kind of support that affirmative action can provide. In a Journal of Blacks in Higher Education journal report, thirteen percent of top-ranked college and university presidents agreed with the following statement: "Because there is a very large gap between the mean academic credentials of blacks and whites, I am in favor of admitting significant numbers of less academically qualified blacks, provided they can meet our academic standards." Liberal admissions policies that acknowledge the systemic roots of racism and other forms of discrimination may be remedial and temporary, but they are surely attractive ways to create deep, lasting, and positive changes in American society. Clearly, legacy admissions are not going to prevent the kind of mediocrity that George Bush embodies.

Another reason why affirmative action may be absolutely necessary is because of the inherent flaws in the American public school system. With most schools struggling to help their students graduate, and with most students failing to learn math and english, American education needs to take a long look in the mirror and change its whole approach to teaching and learning. Yet little is being done to tear away at the foundation of the problem. Educators and policy makers are putting band-aids on issues that require surgery. Instead of questioning the validity of standardized testing, educators are making stricter rules for passing the tests. Instead of training teachers better and paying them more, they are woefully under-qualified and underpaid. Instead of changing their underlying philosophies and theories of education, educators are doing nothing but teach in the same old ways using the same old methods that are obviously not working. Large numbers of poor and non-white students are underperforming and underachieving. Therefore, something more needs to be done so that those students are not resigned to working in menial minimum-wage jobs for the rest of their lives. That something starts first with changing the approach to public schooling but for now, affirmative action is a primary and possibly effective solution to the problem of inequality and economic disenfranchisement.

Possible ways of mediating the needs of Ivy League universities with the needs of disenfranchised students include the following. First, any university that continues to use legacy admissions should also use strong affirmative action programs. Those affirmative action programs should not be based on an "all credentials being equal" clause but rather, on the fact that a "very large gap" exists between the mean test scores of white vs. black students (American Council on Education 2002). As a corollary, any university that currently does not practice legacy admissions might be allowed to employ affirmative action programs that are based on an "all credentials being equal" clause. What has been called an "increased openness of admissions to diverse applicants" is simply not enough; universities need fully embrace diversity as being integral to the quality of the education they offer (Katie 2005). Increased openness is like an insult, representing exactly what civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. criticized as being a too-gradual process of creating social justice.

Second, insipid procedures like those practiced by Duke University must be stopped. Duke has effectively supplanted its legacy admissions with something worse: preferential treatment to non-legacy wealthy applicants. On the basis of family income alone, Duke's development office "identifies about 500 likely applicants with rich or powerful parents who are not alumni" and "cultivates them with campus tours and basic admissions advice," (Katie 2005). Duke even goes so far as to "remind" the students they woo to apply for admissions (Katie 2005). Affirmative action for the rich has gone too far.

Third, universities that continue to practice legacy admissions might be forced to at least change their procedures so that children of alumni must meet minimum entry requirements. Currently many universities do demand the same academic standards from their legacy students as from standard applicants. Notably, Harvard and a handful of other universities weigh legacy as a "plus factor" when all other qualifications are equal. However, other colleges and universities offer bonuses to legacy students that allow them to get in without meeting minimum requirements demanded from all other applicants (Weiss 2005). Legacy admissions pose apparent legal conundrums, few of which are brought…