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May 25, 2019

Legacy admissions are legalized bribery

March 12, 2019
Actress Lori Loughlin, left, and actress Felicity Huffman. Loughlin and Huffman are among at least 40 people indicted in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal. (AP)

When federal prosecutors indicted Hollywood celebrities and other wealthy individuals for paying bribes to have their children admitted to selective colleges, we saw the logical culmination of a more subtle practice that has been going on for decades.

Every year, alumni contribute to their alma matters with the expectation of special treatment for their children. This more genteel form of bribery is considered perfectly legal. Not only that, the donors get a tax break to boot, undercutting the fundamental legal principle that a charitable donation should not enrich the donor.

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In the federal indictment, prosecutors allege that rich parents — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — were part of a larger scam that included cheating on standardized tests and bribing athletic coaches to allow non-athletes to pose as recruited athletes.

U.S. Attorney for District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announces indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal, during a news conference, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Boston.
U.S. Attorney for District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announces indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal, during a news conference, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Boston. (Steven Senne / AP)

“The real victims in this case are the hardworking students” who lost spots to “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in,” Andrew E. Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts said at a press conference.

But the alleged crimes outlined are a more egregious version of how the families of rich students have been paving their way into elite universities for generations. True, colleges do not condone athletic coaches taking bribes to line their own pockets in exchange for coveted admissions slots.

But universities routinely engage in a more subtle version of the same thing when they tell alumni that their children will have a preference in admission, particularly if those parents make donations.

Legacy preferences are widespread. In a 2010 study, three-quarters of the top 100 national universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report gave preference to legacies. Nearly all of the top 100 liberal arts colleges did so.

And while universities try to justify these preferences as a mere “tiebreaker” among otherwise equally qualified candidates, researcher Michael Hurwitz found that the sons and daughters of alumni saw a 45-percentage-point increase in their chances of admissions compared with otherwise equally qualified non-legacies.

Unlike racial or class-based affirmative action, which can be seen as a remedy for historical subjugation and unfairness in life, legacy preferences are affirmative action for the rich. They advantage the already advantaged.

Legacy preferences are usually justified as a fundraising device to entice alumni to provide donations. Of course, if every legacy candidate got a preference equal in size to the others, the system would not work to squeeze donations from alumni. Why pick your pocket if you do not need to in order to qualify for the preference?

Instead, legacy preferences are generally understood to be much larger for alumni who give than those who do not. As one admissions officer at an elite university told journalist Daniel Golden, there are two types of alumni: the “trough drinkers” and the “trough fillers.” The cost of educating students at elite universities tends to exceed the amount of tuition charged, so that even the full-pay students are being subsidized. In that sense, everyone who does not donate is a trough drinker.

Alumni who don’t provide donations are not particularly valued by colleges, this admissions officer said. They are essentially people who took from the system as students and are asking that their kids be allowed to take more. The official told Golden: “Just because you drank at a trough that others filled does not entitle your child to drink at the same trough.”

It is great that prosecutors are cracking down on illegal bribery schemes. Now it is time to do away with legalized bribery.

Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and editor of “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions.”

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