The Fight For Fairness in College Admissions
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“Eliminating legacy preferences is not the end of the fight for fairness in college admissions…”

By James S Murphy

This week Amherst College announced that it was ending the use of legacy preferences in its admissions process. Its president, Biddy Martin, acknowledged that providing an advantage to applicants who are the children of alumni “inadvertently limits educational opportunity.” When incredibly wealthy, highly selective colleges such as Amherst (endowment: $3.7 billion; admission rate: 8 percent) make an announcement like this, it’s tempting to pour a bucket of cold water on the self-congratulatory fireworks they’re lighting for themselves. That should not happen this time.

Still, the temptation is real. Why congratulate a college for doing something it should have done a long time ago? Many large public universities, including the University of California, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M, dropped legacy preferences years ago, as did Johns Hopkins University two years ago and MIT and CalTech before it. Pomona College, a highly ranked liberal-arts college like Amherst, dropped legacy preference in 2017. What’s more, even at those places that give the offspring of alumni an edge, or what admissions offices call a “tip,” legacies usually account for a small share of the enrolled class, and many of those admits would likely have gotten in without the advantage, or so the admissions deans defending the practice of birthright advantage like to say.

Wouldn’t it be better to go after all those jocks on campus? Division III sports have been called “affirmative action for rich white students,” and almost a third of Amherst’s roughly 1,800 students play one of the college’s 27 varsity sports. That is nearly three times as many athletes as legacies. Amherst plays in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, of which 77 percent of athletes are white, while the college’s student body is only 43 percent white, which makes you wonder whether Amherst’s obsession with sports is also “inadvertently limit[ing] educational opportunity,” maybe even more so than legacy preferences were.

Within a few hours of Amherst sharing its news, Catharine B. Hill, the managing director of the nonprofit consulting and research firm Ithaka S+R, dumped out her bucket. In a piece entitled “Ending Legacy Admissions Won’t End Inequity,” Hill stated bluntly, “Legacy admissions are bad from a public-relations perspective, but ending them would do almost nothing to improve socioeconomic diversity at these institutions or increase lower-income students’ likelihood of being admitted….

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