Role of family ties in acceptance called `institutional racism’
By TODD ACKERMAN
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
Blood ties to alumni, sometimes known as the other affirmative action, are the deciding factor in the admission of more than 300 white Texas A&M University freshmen annually, according to data provided by the school.
Such students — known as “legacy admits” — equal roughly the overall total of blacks admitted to A&M each year. Only a handful of black students a year are admitted because of legacy points.
“That’s a lot of kids being advantaged because A&M is where mommy and daddy went,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “Clearly, if you want to go to A&M, it pays to be a legacy applicant rather than black. I wonder why no one’s sued it on those grounds.”
Legacy preference programs are receiving new attention as the nation’s universities reassess admissions policies in the aftermath of last spring’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that race may be an admissions factor on a case-by-case basis. U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., recently filed a bill to require colleges to disclose the race and economic status of first-year students related to alumni, and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has called for an end to college legacy programs.
A&M’s program is drawing particular fire because university President Robert Gates recently announced the university, now free from a court ruling prohibiting racial preferences, won’t consider race in admissions. Coleman and other black legislators cited a seeming contradiction between Gates’ rhetoric that students be admitted strictly because of merit and a program they say perpetuates class distinction and white advantage.
Gates, president for 1 1/2 years, said he doesn’t have a gut-level feeling about legacies, much less a thought-out one, because he inherited the program and knows little about it. He said a task force will study its future.
The task force won’t operate in a vacuum. State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said he plans to file legislation to end A&M’s program, as early as this spring if a special session is called. Burnam filed such bills twice before, but both died in committee.
Burnam said that because the data show so few minorities benefit from legacy preferences, he believes the school orchestrated protests of his bill by minorities during legislative hearings on one of his bills in 2001.
“I have never been as angry at state employees as I was at A&M’s during those hearings,” Burnam said. “Even then, I knew in my gut they were using minority kids to continue a program that reflects the past, meaning the institutional racism of the 20th century, rather than the future, which will be majority African American and Hispanic.”
Typically, anywhere from 1,650 to more than 2,000 A&M applicants a year receive legacy points, so called because they reward the grandchildren, children or siblings of A&M graduates. Such applicants receive 4 points on a 100-point scale that also takes into account such factors as class rank, test scores, extracurricular activities, community service and others.
Most A&M applicants admitted with legacy points don’t need them to get in. But in 2003, 312 whites were admitted who wouldn’t have been without their alumni ties. In 2002, that figure was 321.
The legacy program was the difference for six blacks and 27 Hispanics in 2003, and three blacks and 25 Hispanics in 2002.
A&M officials noted that minority legacies are usually admitted at roughly the same rates as white legacies. They also stressed that having legacy points is no guarantee of being admitted.
“I wish I had the numbers for how many applicants with legacy points don’t get in,” said Frank Ashley, A&M’s acting assistant provost for enrollment. “There are roughly as many of them. I know because I hear from alumni parents when their kid’s application is rejected.”
Although A&M announced in early December it won’t consider race in admissions, Gates is pledging a greater commitment to recruiting minorities. Having already created a high-ranking position in the school’s administration to oversee diversity efforts, Gates says he will create scholarships for students who come from lower- income families and beef up outreach efforts to large urban areas.
Legacy programs date to the 19th century, but they became more widespread in the early 20th century as universities became more selective. Ostensibly instituted to reward alumni support, they had the effect of limiting enrollment of Jews and other minorities.
Today, nearly all selective private universities and some public universities give an edge to legacies, largely to boost alumni giving. Rice is among Texas’ private universities that take into account alumni ties — it has no point system — but A&M is the state’s only public school with such a program.
The largest legacy population nationally is at Notre Dame, where sons and daughters of alumni comprise 23 percent of the student population. They’re more than 10 percent at most elite private schools, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
At most top schools, legacy students are accepted at two or three times the rate of other applicants. Massachusetts’ Amherst College, for example, accepts nearly half of alumni children who apply, compared with 17 percent of all applicants.
Because they aren’t racially discriminatory on their face, legacy preferences are considered less vulnerable to legal challenge than affirmative action. Politically, though, their fates seem inextricably linked.
The University of Georgia, for instance, scrapped its legacy program after a circuit court struck down its affirmative action program. Critics cite studies that suggest alumni offspring score lower on admission tests. And legacy students sometimes describe an “uneasiness” about how they’re perceived similar to that described by minorities.
But “unlike race, which is predominantly a proxy for disadvantage, legacy admissions are an attribute of advantage,” University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas wrote in an article in the latest edition of the educational journal CASE Currents. “They typically come from well-educated families and therefore are privy to many economic, educational and other psychosocial benefits.”
Ashley counters that A&M’s admission categories include one that gives points for an applicant’s parents’ lack of education — up to 6 points if neither parent finished high school. That balances it out, he said.
Although they also say legacy programs build a sense of community, most schools are candid about acknowledging that long-term financial support is the primary reason for preferences. Ashley said alumni parents of rejected applicants tell A&M they’re going to stop donating money or not follow through on plans to give, though he has no idea how often they make good on such threats.
State Rep. Fred Brown, R-College Station, defends A&M’s program but said he would like it better if it were amended to give legacy points to students whose parents went to Prairie View A&M, A&M-Kingsville and other schools in the A&M system. He said he will file a bill to effect that change at the Legislature’s next regular session.
But if Burnam, Coleman and others have their way, A&M might not have a legacy program by then. Passage of Burnam’s bill would make Texas the first state to ban legacy preferences, though some black legislators say they’re more interested in getting A&M to consider race than to discontinue legacy preferences.
Until any change is made, national experts advise A&M to be proactive.
“Universities with a history of statistically small minority populations should tread carefully if they’re going to maintain legacy programs,” said Dan Oren, a Yale professor of psychiatry and the author of Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale. “They better have other minority outreach programs to make up for that.”