Take a look at this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education documenting the important role of legacy preferences—admissions boosts to the children of alumni—in college acceptance rates. It raises the question, as our colleague Rick Cohen puts it at the Nonprofit Quarterly, “why tax preferred institutions of higher education in many cases get to use their tax-exempt status to serve children of immense wealth and privilege.”
This is the real issue embedded in another question frequently asked: “Why do well-endowed universities get tax breaks?” The answer to that can easily be “because education is a public good,” but if that good is available disproportionately to a tiny subset of the public then the entire edifice of tax protection for elite institutions starts to crumble.
Legacy preferences are regularly justified on the grounds that they’re necessary to assure alumni loyalty and therefore alumni financial support. As the Chronicle article documents, the evidence for this is ambiguous at best. But even if it were true, it’s not clear why the convenience of fundraising officers should trump society’s legitimate questions about how it’s allocating scarce benefits among competing groups of beneficiaries. And as long as universities receive tax breaks, it is the broader society that’s doing the allocating and has the right to ask the question.
And here’s another question we have a right to ask: why is affirmative action a problem when it benefits poor people and minorities but not when it benefits wealthy white people? “Legacy preferences” is, after all, a euphemism for making sure that “thems that has, gits—and gits more.”
Most colleges and universities these days would regard it as an ethical violation to accept tobacco money or porn money. Why should their ethical standards tolerate accepting privilege money—which means, essentially, accepting a bribe? It makes little sense for the source of money to be evaluated for purity while its purpose goes unquestioned.
As an ex-admissions officer, the Nonprofiteer is more familiar with legacy preferences than she ever wanted to be, and she can assure her readers that merely being the child of an alumnus is not a bona fide occupational qualification. Plenty of successful alumni have no-‘count kids—hence the old saw about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Nor does it matter that the practice is long-established. Ivy League colleges had a long-established practice of coordinating their scholarship packages (to keep students from choosing among them on the basis of cost), until someone read and implemented the antitrust laws. The sky didn’t fall as a result of that change, and it won’t as a result of this one.
Of all the ways in which universities violate the spirit if not the letter of the laws granting them tax advantages (from running semi-professional sports teams to serving as research arms of the military), legacy preferences are perhaps the most damaging. Every legacy preference helps perpetuate a system of inequality. Every legacy preference deprives someone better-qualified of an opportunity s/he’s earned. What’s more, the howls of protest that go up when that accusation is leveled at some other system of preference are nowhere to be heard.
If institutions of higher learning want to maintain their tax-favored status, they should abolish legacy preferences. If they don’t—if they go on practicing white people’s affirmative action—they deserve to be knocked off the comfortable perch on which they now sit.