Elite admissions racist

Chris Kahn and Chris Kahn

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Like many children of University of Virginia graduates, Mary Stuart Young of Atlanta wore Cavalier orange and blue long before she took an SAT or mailed an application.

“Coming here just felt right,” said Young, 21, who expects to graduate with a religious studies degree in 2004. “This was where I should be.”

After all, with two generations of faithful alumni backing her, Young doubled her chances of getting into Thomas Jefferson’s university.

The practice of favoring the sons and daughters of alumni is a tradition at elite schools. It is also essentially racist, say affirmative action supporters, who are attacking “legacy preferences” as never before while the Supreme Court scrutinizes race-conscious admissions policies.

The reason: Legacy preferences tend to benefit whites, like Young.

“Even if one takes into account that there’s now a generation of minority students applying, the legacy preference can reach back generations,” said Theodore M. Shaw, an NAACP lawyer representing 16 black and Hispanic students in the University of Michigan affirmative action case now before the high court. “It will take a long time before there is any equity there.”

The admissions process has never been equal for everyone. Universities have been known — and criticized — for bending the rules for athletes and children of major donors. Legacy preferences became popular in the 19th century as a way of keeping alumni fathers happy and limiting the number of Jewish applicants.

Today, sons and daughters of alumni make up more than 10 percent of students at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. They are 23 percent of the student population at Notre Dame. At the University of Virginia, 11 percent of this year’s freshmen class were children of alumni — and more than 91 percent of them are white.

At U.Va., the legacy preference is seen as one way to encourage alumni to keep on making the donations that help keep tuition down.

Legacy preferences are “extremely important, particularly now when the state just doesn’t have the resources to help with everything we do,” Virginia’s dean of undergraduate admissions, John A. Blackburn.

That is not to say that U.Va.’s legacy students would not have been admitted anyway. Blackburn said U.Va. legacies generally have better grades than the university’s in-state students, but not as good as the out-of-state students.

Legacy applicants also have no guarantee that they will get in. Instead, they are treated as “plus” applications — the same distinction given to racial minorities. If the choice is between two relatively equal applicants, Blackburn said, the legacy or the minority gets the edge.

“When I applied I was a little worried about my SAT,” said Young, whose 1280 score out of a possible 1600 is about 34 points below average for incoming U.Va. freshmen. “But I went to a private high school that was really challenging, and sometimes I think college has actually been easier.”