Thursday, September 21, 2006

Legacy Admits

Greg Mankiw directs us to an interesting book review in The Harvard Crimson about university admission preferences for legacies (i.e., children of alumni). It begins:

I’ve never confessed this before—not even to my roommates: I’m a beneficiary of legacy admissions.

That’s an embarrassing fact to acknowledge at Harvard, where “legacies,” the children of alumni, enjoy preferential treatment in the admissions process. Harvard accepts one-third of legacy applicants—more than three times its overall admissions rate. The federal Office for Civil Rights, in a 1990 review of Harvard’s admissions practices, found that legacy preferences allowed applicants with “weaker credentials” to gain acceptance to Harvard.

The comparison presented in the second paragraph is not an appropriate one to make. I think it's a safe bet that applicants who have a parent who went to Harvard have an above average probability of being admitted at every institution to which they apply. Smart people tend to have smart children.

In this particular case, the acceptance rate for legacies should be compared to the acceptance rate for applicants who have at least one parent with an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League (or similarly selective) institution. Has anyone ever seen this comparison made?

In addition, this comparison, like others we've been discussing this week regarding early admission applicants, needs to be made conditional on observable characteristics of the application. At a minimum, this comparison should be made conditional on SAT scores and GPA.

The author's parents are not Harvard alumni--read the whole article to understand his point.


Anonymous said...

The author of this comment would like to point to the best historical evidence that Harvard's decision to eliminate its early decision admission process is a benefit to other institutions: people of the caliber of Andrew Samwick will not consider Harvard first like Andrew Samwick did. On behalf of those other institutions, thank you Harvard.

Bibamus said...

You generally point here is fair, and obvious, enough. The author's point, on the other hand, strikes me as more than a little too cute. Just a couple of comments:

1) My guess is that the pool of high school seniors whose GPAs/SATs are in the range of Harvard admits is so large relative to the pool of Harvard legacies that the proportion of admits who are legacies is way out of whack, even conditional on those things. (And I would guess this is true at any Ivy).

2) Smart people tend to have smart children, but even the smartest among us have not figured out a way to escape regression to the mean. Good breeding is a far less likely source of this than bought advantage. It is probably more accurate to say something like: smart parents tend to get good paying jobs, which allow them to send their kids to better schools, foster leisure pursuits that also happen to be good resume building activities, and provide SAT tutoring and admissions coaching, etc., etc., etc.

All things considered, I find providing these kids with any additional unearned advantage through legacy admissions really hard to swallow. Maybe it is an ugly fiscal necessity on the part of colleges - fine. But let's at least hold our noses while we do it, rather than being so damn proud or indignant or cheeky about it.

I mean, "We are all legacy admits now"? Come on.

Andrew Samwick said...

Anonymous: you are too kind. I applied "early" to Harvard, but not early admission.

Bibamus: there is no doubt that nurture plays an equal or greater role in generating the correlation among parents and children. It would be a very different world if those advantages were formally neutralized by the admissions process.

I was more sympathetic to the author's appreciation of the tradeoffs. I'd still like to see the proper statistic used.

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Anonymous said...

oh thank god I'm a Harvard legacy...