Robert Reich: The Extraordinary Bipartisan Support For Banning Legacy Admissions – OpEd


The slumbering giant of America’s bottom 90 percent is slowly awakening to how badly the system is rigged against them — particularly how the rich and privileged pass unfair advantages to their children.

The issue of the moment is legacy admissions — the preferences that prestigious colleges and universities give to children of rich alumni and wealthy donors.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that an astounding 68 percent of all voters support banning legacy admissions outright — including 72 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of independents, and 66 percent of Republicans.

I don’t recall an issue so relevant to who gets what in America on which there’s such strong public consensus.

The issue has come to a head because of the Supreme Court’s recent decision banning affirmative action in college admissions based on race.

But legacy admissions would be a growing scandal even apart from what the Supreme Court did. 

A personal admission. I attended Dartmouth College, followed by Oxford University and Yale Law School. I was a middle-class kid. My father ran a clothing store. I depended on scholarships all the way through. 

That was a half-century ago — before the costs of college soared, before inequalities of income and wealth exploded, before the middle class began shrinking, before prestigious universities became wildly selective, and before the American oligarchy began corrupting every major institution in America — including Congress, the Supreme Court, and universities — with a slush pump of big money “gifts.” 

large new study, conducted at Harvard (ironically) looked at 16 years of recent admissions data from the eight Ivy League schools, plus Stanford, Duke, MIT, and the University of Chicago. 

The study reveals that one in six students at these prestigious universities comes from families in the top 1 percent of income.

These students weren’t admitted because they performed much better on college entrance exams. In fact, among applicants with the same SAT or ACT scores, children from the top 1 percent were 34 percent more likely to be admitted. Those from the top 0.1 percent, more than twice as likely to get in.

Why? Because elite universities give preference to children of family members who attended that same university — and, not incidentally, are more likely to be wealthy.

More than 40 percent of Harvard’s Class of ’23 were legacies.

It’s a vicious cycle that’s leading to ever more concentrated income and wealth. 

Degrees from these elite universities are meal tickets to the highest-paying jobs in America. 

Less than 1 percent of Americans get into one of these top 12 schools, but their graduates account for 12 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs and more than a third of all Americans with a net worth over $100 million.

Because these graduates are in the winner’s circle, their children have every advantage in the world — even before they get legacy preference admission into the same prestigious universities, which are becoming ever more selective. 

This not only perpetuates and entrenches America’s wealth aristocracy. It also perpetuates racial discrimination. Since non-white students were barred from most colleges for much of America’s history, legacy students are by definition more likely to be white. 

The Ivy League’s legacy policies were introduced during the Jim Crow era, with the specific intent of limiting the number of students of color and Jewish students who could be admitted

To this day, about 70 percent of Harvard’s legacy admissions are white, which is why the U.S. Department of Education is now investigating Harvard for potential violation of civil rights.

I think it’s high time to ban legacy admissions. Do you?

This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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