'Legacy' admissions ban highlights flaws in system
USA Today, Jan. 22, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

For the past 30 years, Americans have viewed, and argued about, college admissions as an "either/or" proposition. Either you earned your place on merit, as measured by a standardized test, if you are white, or you received it, thanks to a racial preference, if you are not. The options were scores or skin.

The Jan. 9 decision by Texas A&M University to stop giving favorable treatment to the relatives of alumni -- known in the academic trade as "legacy" applicants -- injected a welcome dose of truth serum to this flawed national discussion.

By reminding the nation that there are all sorts of unearned advantages in the admissions process, with legacy status being one of the most common, A&M helps call into question a system that is riddled with cynicism and deceit. We have to ask ourselves as a nation whether the emphasis on supposed merit in college admissions has been a lie, a failure or both.

As reformers go, A&M President Robert Gates appears to have been an unlikely one. He renounced legacy favoritism only after banning race-based affirmative action in admissions and then seeing the Houston Chronicle reveal that more than 300 white applicants had been admitted to the university thanks to family connections.

Still, however muddled his own motives, Gates has brought a necessary measure of intellectual honesty to the admissions debate, much as the president of the University of California system, Robert Atkinson, did three years ago in urging its campuses to stop requiring the SAT with its "undefined notions of 'aptitude' or 'intelligence.' "

Neither example is likely to inspire many imitators among colleges and universities. Most of them are too focused on moving up in the U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings, which is a separate outrage. But Gates and Atkinson each have struck a serious blow against admissions as practiced in the past half-century.

The answer may not be eradicating all forms of preference from admissions. Instead, we might acknowledge that the process is inherently subjective and should consider a variety of factors, including family ties, diversity of race and class, leadership, character, creativity and so on.

Considering the elitist foundations of American higher education, it is easy to understand why the SAT has become so popular since World War II. With its aura of dispassionate scientific accuracy, it seemed to offer a corrective to the traditional bias in college admissions against blacks, Jews and women, who often were rejected or subjected to quotas despite their talent. Here was the way to admit only the most talented, regardless of race, gender or creed.

In fact, the SAT never promised to be more than a predictor of freshman performance, and critics have questioned its record even at that. But once it became the prevailing factor in college admissions, the entire system warped itself to accommodate the test.

Affluent parents collectively have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to enroll their children in test-prep classes, buying the appearance of merit. At the other end of the process, college officials found themselves torn between the rhetoric of meritocracy and the reality that blacks and Hispanics scored far below whites on standardized tests. So, under the names of "affirmative action" or "diversity," they cooked up a parallel admissions track premised on pity, meaning minorities who entered their institutions did so with the presumption of inferiority.

Gates of Texas A&M asked the right questions, even if he gave the wrong answers. He recognized that the college admissions system is profoundly flawed. He erred in continuing to trust standardized tests and thinking that, without racial or legacy considerations, the playing field would be level.

It never can be perfectly level, and we should operate on that assumption. If we give up the notion that merit can be measured by a test, and if we acknowledge that many variables contribute to an applicant's prospects and to his or her ultimate value to a college, we can bring integrity and sanity back to the admissions process.

Diversity should be a plus; so should legacy, high grades and many other factors. Once we unshackle ourselves from this belief in statistical objectivity -- once we plainly say that admissions decisions are an art, not a science -- we can lay to rest the merit-vs.-race argument and save millions of high school kids and their parents from the collective nervous breakdown that applying to college has become.

I know this new way can work, because I have experienced it. As a faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I have operated in just such an unapologetically subjective system for a dozen years. Our program consciously has refused to require standardized tests because of our conviction that they largely tell us who had enough money to pay for Princeton Review or Kaplan courses.

Each winter, as I read 70 application portfolios, I have to imperfectly weigh essays, college grades, reference letters, writing tests and autobiographies. It 's not hard to understand the temptation of letting a test score do most of the work for you and then throwing in a few minorities as a sop to your conscience. It's certainly faster than wading through each idiosyncratic package. It's just intellectually and morally dishonest, that's all.

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