Challenging legacy bias in admissions

Zoya Waliany

As Fisher v. Texas — the affirmative action case involving a Caucasian female denied admission to UT — makes its way to the Supreme Court and gains prominence in the media, other similar university admission policies are being criticized. A different demographic, Asian-Americans, are challenging the status quo of legacy admissions policies at institutions including Harvard University and Princeton University.

In 2008, an Indian-American student, among the top students in his California high school class, claimed Harvard and Princeton rejected his application because of his race.

This student’s case is part of the growing debate about whether elite universities’ admissions processes discriminate against Asian-Americans. Tied with Fisher v.

Texas, some view these complaints as a contest of affirmative action practices at universities that favor blacks and Hispanics. However, this student’s challenge should instead address the unfair admissions policies of legacy preference at elite universities.

Advocacy groups defending this student’s case argue that Asian-Americans, the fastest growing and most affluent demographic in the United States according to Bloomberg, face higher obstacles to university admission despite having the highest average SAT scores, according to a 2009 study.

Their race is not considered in affirmative action practices, and they often lack legacy status at elite schools, as many of them are first-generation Americans. Affirmative action practices are in place to create equal footing for students whose socioeconomic backgrounds limit their access to essential resources — such as SAT tutoring or adequate college counseling — and thereby hinder their chances of being admitted to universities. Though Asian-Americans do not fall into this category, they still may not have high representation at elite universities because of legacy preferences — that is, applicants who are children or siblings of university alumni and consequently have an advantage in the admissions process. While some critics argue that legacy status plays a small role in admitting applicants and is on the decline, others contend that the practice is still rampant and emphasizes the income inequality and status obsession of our country. The reason that this practice is in use is because private institutions, such as Harvard, use the prospect of legacy admissions to generate donations from alumni.

For Asian-Americans, who are often first-generation Americans, this practice is unfair because these students do not have the same privileges and position in society as those with alumni parents. When a student with higher test scores and an all-around better application is rejected in favor of a student whose father attended the college and recently offered a generous donation, it breeds an environment of elitism and nepotism that will hinder our country’s growth. Donations from alumni should come from a desire to expand and enhance the school, not to exercise power over the school.

Many of the rejected, yet deserving, students could have flourished at these schools and might have become part of the nation’s next generation of leaders, further increasing the participation rate of Asian-Americans in fields in which they are still underrepresented, such as politics. Any first-generation American without such status or any American whose parents went to a different university than he or she wishes to attend are in a similar position. Rather than simply accepting a large percentage of legacy applicants — as Princeton did in 2009, when it accepted 41.7 percent of legacy applicants, compared with 9.2 percent of the overall applicant pool — universities should commit to admitting students based on merit.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.