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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Very rich lacrosse-playing 'legacies' have an Ivy edge

The very rich are different: They can get their kids into ultra-selective universities. Upper-middle-class won't do it. And it helps -- a lot -- to be a "legacy" who fences, rows, sails, skis or plays lacrosse and attends an elite private school.

Applicants from families in the top 1 percent of incomes are 34 percent more likely to be admitted to a group of elite colleges, compared to applicants with the same SAT/ACT scores, concludes a new study by Harvard economists. Those from the top 0.1 percent, with parents earning more than $611,000 a year, were more than twice as likely to get in, report Aatish Bhatia, Claire Cain Miller and Josh Katz in the New York Times.

The analysis looks at the eight Ivy League universities, Stanford, Duke, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago from 2001 through 2015. "Among students with the same test scores, the colleges gave preference to the children of alumni and to recruited athletes, and gave children from private schools higher nonacademic ratings," write Bhatia, Miller and Katz.

Comparing students with similar scores, applicants from middle- and upper-middle-class families were less likely to be admitted to "Ivy Plus" schools than those from poorer or richer families.

MIT was an outlier: It had "almost no preference for rich students," and no admissions boost for legacies or athletes.

There was no wealth effect at flagship state universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia.

The preference for high-income legacies was significant, the study found. They were "accepted at much higher rates than other applicants with similar qualifications" at their parents' universities, but were no more likely to get into other selective colleges.

One in eight students from the top 1 percent was a recruited athlete, compared to one in 20 for the bottom 60 percent. "That’s largely because children from rich families are more likely to play sports, especially more exclusive sports played at certain colleges, like rowing and fencing," notes the Times.

Very rich students received similar academic ratings, compared to same-score applicants, but significantly higher ratings on the subjective nonacademic score, which includes extracurricular activities, volunteering, personality traits and recommendation letters.

"The biggest contributor was that admissions committees gave higher scores to students from private, nonreligious high schools," write Bhatia, Miller and Katz. "They were twice as likely to be admitted as similar students — those with the same SAT scores, race, gender and parental income — from public schools in high-income neighborhoods. A major factor was recommendations from guidance counselors and teachers at private high schools."

Academic ratings -- especially SAT/ACT scores -- are excellent predictors of post-college outcomes, the study found. Nonacademic scores are not. "Legacy students, athletes and private school students do no better after college, in terms of earnings or reaching a top graduate school or firm," and "generally do somewhat worse," reports the Times.

Does it matter who gets in?

The researchers . . . compared students who were wait-listed and got in, with those who didn’t and attended another college instead. Consistent with previous research, they found that attending an Ivy instead of one of the top nine public flagships did not meaningfully increase graduates’ income, on average. However, it did increase a student’s predicted chance of earning in the top 1 percent to 19 percent, from 12 percent.
For outcomes other than earnings, the effect was even larger — it nearly doubled the estimated chance of attending a top graduate school, and tripled the estimated chance of working at firms that are considered prestigious, like national news organizations and research hospitals.

Ivy-Plus graduates disproportionately hold leadership positions in our society, researchers say. And they're not a very diverse bunch socioeconomically or racially. (Or politically, but they don't say that.)

In an interview with Bari Weiss on Free Press, economist Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, calls for elite colleges to ban legacy admissions and preferences for "aristocratic sports" such as crew and fencing.

In addition, admissions officers need to question resume inflation, he said. An applicant "spent six weeks on an archeological dig in North Africa in the summer," for example. Is that an "interesting, valuable experience" or "a bauble that the parents’ privilege enabled them to obtain?"

Eliminating the use of SAT scores is "very dangerous," Summers believes. "We need more and better tests for measuring excellence, not to move away from tests."

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Jul 28, 2023

Americans should learn from the 192 other members of the United Nations, and prioritize baccalaureate student examinations and common university admission tests over their inadequate, traditional forms of academic rating, grade point averages and college aptitude testing, and should resort to holistic review only to break ties among those with the same tertiary rank.

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