Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Forbes recently published an editorial entitled, The Farce of Meritocracy: Why Legacy Admission Might Actually Be a Good Thing. The thesis of the piece is that legacy admissions preferences are so absurd that they may actually be useful in exposing the farcical nature of our meritocratic notions. While I agree that legacy preferences are antithetical to conceptions of merit, I strongly disagree that they are in any way “a good thing.”
As the author points out, legacy preferences tilt the admissions game in ways that allow social, financial, and political capital to masquerade as merit, thereby further disadvantaging already disadvantaged applicants. Put simply, legacy preferences preserve privilege. I understand what the author was attempting to do—use irony to highlight an absurdity. But I guess I have less faith in the ability of some to grasp the shrewdness of the piece.
I have written in other spaces about the effects of un-meritocratic privilege in selective admissions. So there is no need to revisit those points here; but the author made one point is that I think is deserving of further emphasis. He writes the following about Stanford’s admission process:
Applicants are not just given preference because they are children of alumni, but because they are children of alumni who donate money…If alumni have donated money, the admissions office will know about it. In any other circumstance, this would be considered bribery. But when rich alumni do it, it’s allowed. In fact, it’s tax-subsidized.
This point cannot be emphasized enough. The tax code subsidizes the de facto (if not actual) bribery of selective colleges and universities all over the country. Privileged individuals are allowed to use un-meritocratic means (in this case, money) to tilt the admissions process in their favor (legacy applicants at Stanford are three times more likely to be offered admission), and in the process, they receive a tax deduction. And if that is not bad enough, the institution is allowed to collect the payoff free of taxes as well. In this context, less affluent individuals are contributing, in the literal sense, to their continued disadvantage.
We spend seemingly endless amounts of time arguing about the appropriateness of so-called “welfare” programs for the poor, but rarely give the same attention to welfare for the rich. Similarly, we express passionate indignation (righteous and otherwise) about racial preferences, while accepting socioeconomic preferences as simple facts of life.
But let us be clear: not all preferences are created equal. And racial preferences premised on broadening access to opportunities are far nobler than those, like legacy admissions, that merely preserve the unequal and unjust status quo.