The harm of preferment

Admission preferences for “legacies” with below-average grades and test scores may backfire, concludes a study by Princeton researchers. According to Chronicle of Higher Education, “legacies” “are far more likely than minority students or athletes to run into academic trouble in college if admissions preferences got them through the door.”

The farther a selective college lowers the bar for a given legacy applicant — as measured by the gap between that applicant’s grade-point average and the mean for that institution — the lower the grade-point average that the student is likely to earn, according to a paper written by the two researchers who conducted the study, Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs, and Margarita Mooney, a postdoctoral fellow in Princeton’s Office of Population Research.

. . . The paper says the researchers found that students who had received extra consideration in admission because they are black, Hispanic, or athletes did not have the same academic problems as legacies, as measured by grades or retention rates, even if college policies of giving minority students and athletes extra consideration in admissions appeared to have some drawbacks.

But preference-receiving “legacies” earn higher grades than students admitted because of minority status or athletics, points out John Rosenberg on Discriminations.

“About 70 percent of athletes, 77 percent of black and Hispanic students, and just 48 percent of legacies had SAT scores below their institution’s average,” researchers found. On average, the legacy preference was worth 47 SAT points; athletes and black or Hispanic students received a boost of about 108 SAT points, the Chronicle reports.

On the whole, legacies fared better than the other two populations studied in terms of grades; their mean grade-point average at the end of two years of college was 3.26, compared with 3.12 for athletes and 3.05 for students categorized as black or Hispanic. In terms of their retention rates, legacies were in the middle: 5 percent of athletes, 7 percent of legacies, and 11 percent of black or Hispanic students had dropped out by the end of their junior year.

Rosenberg wonders why the preference is seen as harmful to legacies but OK for others. He also questions the theory that “social climate” — the perception that preference beneficiaries are less capable — depresses academic performance.

Gee, is everything a function of “social climate”? Couldn’t the difficulty of students who are admitted to selective institutions with significantly lower academic qualifications than their non-preferred peers be caused by the simpler fact that they were not as prepared to do the work that is expected there?

There must be an apples and oranges problem here. (Only the abstract is online for free.)

My freshman year at Stanford, I roomed for a quarter with the daughter of major donors to the university. She did not appear to be very smart but it was hard to tell because of her heavy drug use. When she flunked out, I roomed with a Native American girl who had no money and no family support of any kind. She’d figured out early that education was her route out of a life she hated. She remains the hardest-working person I’ve ever met in my life. Years later, I ran into her ex-husband who told me she’d fulfilled her life goal: Get out of Dinuba. Stay out of Dinuba.

About Joanne


  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    But the druggie daughter of major donors is atypical of legacies. (No doubt colleges offer extra consideration to children of major donors, but there aren’t many major donors so there aren’t many children of major donors.) If the average legacy bonus is 47 SAT points, that’s not much– those legacies, on average, are very little different than other students. And if legacies have an average GPA of 3.26, they’re generally faring perfectly well academically.

    If I understand correctly, Joanne went to Stanford and so did her daughter. That makes her daughter a legacy. Did Joanne’s daughter get a little extra boost at admissions time? If she did, was that a bad thing?

  2. I’m told by a friend who used to work for Stanford Admissions that things have changed quite a bit since we were undergrads in the ’70s: There’s very little preference for legacies and not much even for donors’ children.

    Of course, most alumni of selective colleges raise children who do quite well in school. The slackers are a minority.

    My daughter had very high grades and test scores, strong extracurriculars, honors, etc. Plus she wrote a terrific essay (on her own). I don’t know whether her legacy status played any role.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    My impression about selective colleges and legacies is that when the admisson committee meets, there are some kids who are so great that it’s obvious that they should be admitted. Then there are some kids that are so unqualified that they clearly don’t make the cut (unless there is one whose father donated a building or something). The middle 80% or so, who are all very qualified and could do the work and fit in admirably, remain. So the admissions committee is choosing among a group of kids all of whom would make fine admittees. That’s when it makes a difference, small or maybe not so small depending on the school, if a kid is a legacy.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    And one more thing I just noticed:

    “48 percent of legacies had SAT scores below their institution’s average”

    About 50% of legacies are below average. And the problem is?

    Granted, the average SAT score is probably below the median SAT score… but I doubt it’s a lot below the median.

  5. Ha, Cardinal Fang, I didn’t even pick up on that one line. Shows how observant I am.

    Anyway…of course admissions offices aren’t going to publicly proclaim that legacies play any significant role in admission decisions…or not even being a legacy, but just well-connected. To do so would be PR suicide. I mean, I’m sure Chelsea Clinton was a fine student in her own right. But does anyone honestly think that she was admitted to Stanford on that basis only?

  6. what irked me about the report is the breathless assertion that: [the larger] the gap between that applicant’s grade-point average and the mean for that institution — the lower the grade-point average that the student is likely to earn.

    might that be true irregardless of legacy status?

  7. Hey! Whassamatta Dinuba? My great aunt Marcella lived in Dinuba and loved it. Raised roses, she did.
    I had an interesting conversation with a friend who went to Harvard: we knew who didn’t belong there, he said. And we knew why they got in.
    One friend of mine seems to have basically had this idea as a HS senior – black, 1200 SATs, decent grades, could have gotten into a better school than a white with the same credentials – and he looked for a school where his credentials were about normal, had a wonderful time. Got a good education, didn’t feel second-guessed all through it.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Or even irrespective.

  9. he looked for a school where his credentials were about normal, had a wonderful time

    Yow! Does he give stock market advice? Anyone who, at that age, is smart enough to avoid an ever-lovin’ blue-eyed bargain like affirmative action is someone whose advice is worth taking.