Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why, If At All, Is It Unethical For Universities To Prioritise Applicants Related To Their Alumni?

This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student Tanae Rao

Introduction

Most notably in the United States, some prestigious universities[1] consider whether or not a student is closely related to one or more alumni when evaluating her application. In an increasingly competitive university admissions landscape, having legacy status increases an applicant’s probability of being admitted to such a great extent that over a third of Harvard’s undergraduate class of 2022 is composed of legacy students.[2] This has led the New York Times Editorial Board to describe the practice as “anti-meritocratic” and “an engine of inequity”.[3]

Considering the alma mater of a student’s relatives when evaluating their university application seems to be wrong, or unfair, in some way. But what is the central aspect of the legacy admissions policy justifying this reaction? I consider three possible answers to this question. Firstly, I reject the academic qualification view, whereby universities should only consider if applicants will be able to meet academic requirements when making admissions decisions. This view does not reflect the actual state of university admissions today, where the number of qualified applicants often far exceeds the number of available seats. I then reject the popular view whereby universities should minimise their consideration of factors outside of the applicant’s control. Though this criterion appears to meet many of our intuitions regarding university admissions, I argue that it is too restrictive, preventing reasonable factors from being considered by universities. Finally, I propose a consequentialist view, whereby admissions decisions should be based on their expected consequences to admitted students and society as a whole. This view—I contend—is a plausible explanation of why legacy admissions should be discontinued, contingent on some evaluative questions.

The Academic Qualification View

Perhaps the only criterion by which universities should evaluate applicants is whether or not they are likely to be prepared for the academic expectations of university. Specifically, only if the university expects that an applicant has the prerequisite skills to fulfill the requirements of their coursework should they be admitted. This criterion gets the case right in a variety of instances. For example, an applicant who is completely illiterate should not be admitted to university over a competing applicant with sufficient academic skills. In general, because university seats are a scarce resource, they should be allocated to those in a position to benefit from them. Under this view, legacy admissions should be discontinued because legacy status presumably does not demonstrate academic qualification better than other information available to the university, such an applicant’s past academic performance, samples of her writing, and teacher recommendations.

However, in the case of more selective institutions, there are now often significantly more academically qualified applicants than available seats. It is unclear why, in this situation, prioritising academically qualified candidates with legacy status is impermissible—in any case, only academically qualified candidates will be admitted. Therefore, while academic qualification should act as a necessary condition for an applicant to be admitted, it is clearly not sufficient to explain why legacy admissions should be discontinued.

Minimising factors outside of the applicant’s control

One popular intuition is that, after setting aside academically unqualified applicants, universities should minimise their consideration of factors beyond applicants’ control. Like the academic sufficiency view, this position often gets the case right. For example, it is now relatively uncontroversial that universities should not exhibit bias against people with disabilities, or of certain races and sexualities. However, I contend that this criterion, brought to its logical conclusion, implies that even factors such as grades and extracurricular achievements should not be used to distinguish between academically qualified applicants.

Consider the use of standardised testing as a factor in university admissions. On the surface, this appears to be within an applicant’s control—revising for the exam presumably increases test scores. However, it is sometimes argued that the consideration of standardised testing benefits those who can afford preparation materials and private tutoring, putting applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage. Because the income of the household into which one is born is not a factor within one’s control, it follows that the income effects of standardised testing should be minimised by universities. If universities are unwilling or unable to adjust test scores for unearned educational opportunities, then they should alternatively do away with standardised testing entirely.

This is the same conclusion reached by administrators at the University of Chicago, who removed their previous standardised testing requirement for undergraduate admissions in 2018. As John Boyer, the dean of the university’s undergraduate college commented at the time, this policy change was intended to increase access for “all citizens, not just those born in certain Zip codes”.[4] This begs the question, if the influence of socioeconomic privilege were removed, what would standardised test scores measure?

Suppose that it was possible to obtain a measure of academic performance perfectly controlled for any differences in educational opportunities beyond the applicant’s control. In this case, it seems that test scores would track some combination of hard work, innate academic ability, and luck. If material privileges should not be considered by universities because they lie outside of an applicant’s control, I contend that innate ability—which largely determines one’s ability to achieve the exemplary academic standard currently demanded for admission into prestigious universities—must also not be considered for the same reason. However, this view violates fundamental intuitions about who universities should admit. Critically, it fails to explain the observation that, all other things being equal, universities should admit applicants with extreme, naturally endowed capability in their subject of study over an applicant with relatives who are alumni. In rejecting all factors resulting from the birth lottery, we cannot differentiate between factors often deemed to be reflective of merit, and arbitrary considerations like legacy status.

Therefore, in attempting to explain why only legacy status should not be considered in university admissions, the argument in fact implies that practically every category of information currently used by universities should be disregarded. Note that I have not merely argued that minimising the consideration of factors outside of applicants’ control is not practically possible. I have contended that many factors outside of an applicant’s control, such as innate ability, should be considered by universities.

There are two possible responses to my argument: one can either reject the existence and influence of natural talent on academic outcomes or argue that natural talent constitutes a special category which universities should continue to consider, despite the original criterion. The former is a chiefly evaluative question, on which I will not comment here, except to point out that my position is not wholly contingent on genetics determining academic ability. For instance, if it turns out that academic ability is a function of early nurture by one’s parents, or of other seemingly random, currently unmeasurable variations in life experience, then these factors are also outside of an applicant’s control. As long as there is some significant difference in the ease with which students digest and comprehend new material, then a university which minimises its consideration of factors outside of applicants’ control cannot consider grades or standardised test scores when determining admissions.

The latter objection amounts to special pleading; if there is an underlying reason why legacy status should not be considered, but genetic privileges should be considered, it must be explained by a different view.

Consequences for society at large

I now consider the position that universities should adopt a consequentialist approach when evaluating applicants, making the admissions decision that will have the best expected consequences for society. I presume a form of act consequentialism, whereby one of expected human welfare, pleasure, etc. should be maximised every time a new cohort is selected for admission. This comes with the caveat that the only information available to the university is what is listed in a typical admissions file. For instance, an applicant who would commit self-harm if rejected cannot be admitted for this reason alone, because the university lacks epistemic access to an applicant’s psychological tendencies.

This view entails the academic qualification criterion, which I previously endorsed as a necessary condition for an applicant to be admitted—I cannot conceive of a situation where admitting an applicant who is expected to suffer under the expectations of university (with a probable end result of failing or dropping out) can have good consequences for the applicant, or for the broader society.

There are numerous compelling reasons to abolish legacy admissions from a consequentialist standpoint. Foremost, university education, especially at an institution well-regarded by employers, is widely accepted as having a social mobility effect on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Insofar as legacy admissions tend to decrease the number of students who become upwardly mobile as a result of admission—those with the most to gain— discontinuation is justified.

On an individual level, an applicant’s innate academic ability or demonstrated history of perseverance predicts the benefits she will accrue from a prestigious education in a way that her relatives’ alma maters do not. Noting that the individual benefits to students of a university education constitute a significant portion of the total societal benefits, the consequentialist view explains why factors pertaining to innate ability, hard work, etc. should be considered instead of legacy status. While the previous two explanations forced us to adopt an all-or-nothing approach, whereby legacy admissions could only be rejected at the expense of other intuitively valuable factors, the consequentialist view succeeds in explaining why the consideration of legacy status is particularly disquieting.

On the other hand, adopting a consequentialist approach leaves the critic of legacy admissions vulnerable to the following argument: Legacy admissions increase the amount of money donated by alumni. This money goes towards financial aid for people who otherwise could not afford to attend, to new facilities and research, and to making universities financially viable in the long run. The opportunity cost of admitting students with legacy status instead of competitors (who would stand to reap greater benefits from admission) is smaller than the benefits conferred by the alumni donations encouraged by legacy admissions.

The premise that legacy admissions increase alumni donations by a significant amount is subject to some controversy, with some studies finding that alumni donations remain roughly constant when legacy admissions are discontinued.[5] It should nevertheless be noted that the consequentialist justification does not completely preclude the consideration of legacy status in admissions. If it could be shown, in a specific case, that legacy admissions would attract substantial donations, leading to exemplary benefits (e.g., more need-based financial aid), it would follow that legacy admissions should persist. One clear, if unrealistic, example of this would be if a financially struggling university were offered a sizeable donation wholly and explicitly contingent on legacy admissions being sustained.

Ultimately, this is an evaluative question. Suppose that any positive consequences of legacy admissions do not exceed the clear harms to social mobility and to individual students. In this case, a consequentialist approach justifies the abolition of legacy admissions, while preserving the consideration of other factors, such as exemplary competence in a field of academic interest.

Conclusion

At their core, admissions processes are competitions. The prevailing intuition regarding these competitions is that winning should not be a birthright reserved for the lucky few. I have argued that this intuition, though well-intentioned, is misguided. To oppose the consideration of legacy status for this reason is to challenge the basis on which admissions decisions can be made at all, unless one is willing to assert a priori that some privileges endowed by the birth lottery should be made exceptions to the rule.

Instead, I have argued that the abolition of legacy admissions can be justified by their adverse consequences. If my conclusion is accepted, critics of legacy admissions have a difficult task ahead of them. Foremost, there is an evaluative question of how many additional alumni donations are incentivised by legacy admissions. There is also the more trying question of whether the benefits of legacy admissions can outweigh the harms on a case-by-case basis—in particular, I assert that legacy preference is permissible when it is likely to elicit particularly large donations.

 

[1] Throughout this essay, I use the term ‘university’ in reference to the relevant decision-making agents within a given university. For instance, ‘universities should admit applicants based on P’ should be taken to mean ‘admissions committees, the university administrators who dictate admissions policy, and other relevant parties should admit applicants based on P’.

[2] Michael Hurwitz, The impact of legacy status on undergraduate admissions at elite

colleges and universities, 2009; Emily Martin and Yoni Blumberg, Harvard’s freshman class is more than one-third legacy—here’s why that’s a problem, 2019

[3] The New York Times Editorial Board, End Legacy College Admissions, 2019

 

[4] Nick Anderson, A shake-up in elite admissions: U-Chicago drops SAT/ACT testing requirement, 2018

[5] Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil, Brian Starr, and Richard Kahlenberg (ed.), Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, 2010, 101-120

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Nick. 2018. “A shake-up in elite admissions: U-Chicago drops SAT/ACT testing requirement.” The Washington Post. June 14. Accessed February 9, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/a-shake-up-in-elite-admissions-u-chicago-drops-satact-testing-requirement/2018/06/13/442a5e14-6efd-11e8-bd50-b80389a4e569_story.html.

Coffman, Chad, Tara O’Neil, and Brian Starr. 2010. “An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Legacy Preferences on Alumni Giving at Top Universities.” In Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, by Richard Kahlenberg(ed.). New York: The Century Foundation Press.

Hurwtiz, Michael. 2009. The impact of legacy status on undergraduate admissions at elite colleges and universities. The Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Martin, Emmie, and Yoni Blumberg. 2019. “Harvard’s freshman class is more than one-third legacy—here’s why that’s a problem.” CNBC Make It. April 7. Accessed February 9, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/07/harvards-freshman-class-is-more-than-one-third-legacy.html#:~:text=Harvard’s%20Class%20of%202022%20is,according%20to%20The%20Harvard%20Crimson.&text=As%20of%202015%2C%20legacies%20were,a%20significant%20advantage%20as%20wel.

The New York Times Editorial Board. 2019. “End Legacy College Admissions.” The New York Times. September 7. Accessed February 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/07/opinion/sunday/end-legacy-college-admissions.html.

 

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5 Responses to Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why, If At All, Is It Unethical For Universities To Prioritise Applicants Related To Their Alumni?

  • Amy Scanlon says:

    I’d like to add a point about SAT/ ACT scores as a university consideration and the question of individual ability, merit and control.

    I’d add that of American students who go to “a” university only a thin minority get private tutoring for the SAT/ACT tests. It’s not at all uncommon in much of the US for courses on prepping for SAT/ACT to be offered as part of “Summer School”-where students who are not failing their regular courses can for minimal (can be waived due to income or hardship considerations) or no fees enroll in a summer course to prepare for the SAT and/or ACT. These courses can often (but not always) be found in poor and disadvantaged parts of the country, and it is fairly common for well-off and upper-middle class (slightly different meaning the US than the UK) parents to conclude that signing their sons and daughters for private SAT/ACT tutors is a waste of money, while the teacher who will be doing the summer school course on SAT Prep at their public school (US not UK meaning of public school!!) is at least a known quantity.

    When I went to a rather diverse (along all lines) US High School, my brother and I, both took the SAT Prep by enrolling in a Summer School course, taught at a High School in the same district as the one we both attended. It was taught by a notoriously boring math teacher and wasn’t much fun, but the local company offering private tutoring for the SAT, for packages starting at $599 had the feel of a blatant scam op, and I saw no reason to believe could better prepare a student to do well on the SAT than Mr. Boring Math teacher.

    While I will be the first to admit that the whole system surrounding US Standardized testing is far from perfect, it is neither half as mad as what you see in some European countries, and nor is it equal to legacy.

    While a student’s control over how he or she does on the SAT is influenced by factors outside his/her control, nobody gets to pick their parents at all. Students can even take out library book to prep for the SAT, however you simply get the parents you get.

    In this case I’d say the degree of “outside the student’s control’ are not equal here.

    Also for all the flaws of the US school system, the British assumption that fee-paying schools are universally better than state schools is not always true of private (fee paying) and public (free state government funded) school in the US. Many public (free) school in the US are much, much better than local fee paying schools. This isn’t true everywhere, but the assumption that parents with enough money can buy their children a better education than the local public (free) school can offer is far from correct in much of the US.

    • Tanae Rao says:

      Thanks for your comment. My personal experience of studying for the SAT was similar to yours. I revised using only Khan Academy, which is available for free to everyone with internet access. This leads me to agree with you that standardised test scores are not purely determined by socioeconomic status. To clarify, when I said that “it is sometimes argued” that this is the case, I didn’t intend to endorse the position.

      I interpret your objection as follows: there is a difference in degree between a student’s control of their legacy status and their standardized test scores. This difference in degree explains why considering test scores is permissible, while considering legacy status is impermissible. Perhaps this motivates a reformulation of the second view I consider, to something like “Universities should only consider factors <X% outside of the applicant's control".

      I attempt to respond to this line of reasoning with my perfect test thought experiment in the essay. A test whose results are uninfluenced by material privilege would still measure elements outside students' control, such as innate intelligence–elements which should clearly be considered by admissions committees.

      Consider a natural genius whose parents don't hold university degrees and a mediocre legacy applicant, both of whom are admitted to a particular university. The important difference between these applicants is not the degree to which their success was in their control, but the consequences of selecting for intelligence versus selecting for socioeconomic privilege.

      And while it might be argued that even natural geniuses need to put in (some) effort to achieve standout results, the same is likely true of most legacy applicants. Holding legacy status is not a sufficient condition for university admission; legacy applicants also typically need to put in some effort into their academic and extracurricular endeavours in order to be admitted.

  • Andy says:

    One would hope that an elite intellectual institution would seek to admit the n intellectually most capable students (where n is the size of the fresher year group to be populated) rather than an arbitrary subset of mn minimally capable students (where m might be large).

    One still unideal scenario might involve 1/3 of legacy students meeting the minimum-ability requirement with the remaining 2/3 being selected on academic merit, from the top down.

    Admitting 1/3 students who meet a threshold only, rather than the next 1/3 by academic merit means:

    – there is less pressure to make the course more intellectually demanding
    – the academically best 2/3 have fewer intellectual sparring partners, meaning their performance is also degraded
    – the student body has a greater tendency to split into two ‘classes’
    – having gained an elite degree is less indicative of intellectual ability

    • Tanae Rao says:

      Thanks for your comment. These additional negative consequences of legacy admissions strengthen the case for their discontinuation. I am particularly compelled by your last point, namely that legacy admissions reduce the competence signalling effect of an elite degree.

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