Are 'Legacy' Preferences in College Admissions Unlibertarian?

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For the February
issue, Reason magazine’s Shikha Dalmia authored a scathing
condemnation
of preferential treatment for “legacy” candidates
at U.S. universities. While the state of higher education in the
United States offers much to criticize, it isn’t clear that preference
for “legacy” candidates is particularly unlibertarian. Although
compiling the statistics would be impossible, it is a safe bet that
virtually every college, public and private, puts a legacy applicant’s
file at the top of the stack. And why not? Those alumni whose children
later apply are more likely to have offered gratuitous financial
support to their alma mater. Doesn’t this leave the possibility
of saving tax money in the end, in the case of public schools?
Of course, Dalmia is quite right in her gut feeling that such rent-seeking
is unseemly. It is, in fact, only the involuntary nature of public
university finance that makes such arrangements inappropriate. Yet,
this problem is not one of admissions standards, but of socialism.

Consider that
it just may be the case that standardized test scores are attempts
to put a number on personal attributes that can’t be described very
well in such discrete terms. Seeing that an applicant was reared
by a parent who had previously succeeded in that particular educational
setting offers at least a reasonable belief that an otherwise borderline
applicant may fit the mold after all. Such applicants are not only
the progeny of alumni and the potential inheritors of their personal
attributes, but are also more likely to be practically acquainted
with what that school requires for success. They are more likely
to know what it is actually like to live in that place, to sit in
those chairs, and to cheer for that team. Surely a libertarian must
consider that an individual’s appreciation for and understanding
of such factors of personal proclivity may play an important role
both for the matriculating students and the school.

There is no
reason to worship at the altar of centralized, standardized testing
at the expense of a more basic bet on nature and nurture.
Individual schools are unique entities, and it is a pretty good
bet that there are widely varying schools that sit right next to
each other in terms of test score and GPA statistics. More qualitative
information like legacy status gives admissions officers some much-needed
“real world” data with which to better make admissions selections.
Finding a good fit for a particular school is more important than
instituting a one-size-fits-all, egalitarian admissions policy that
has the force of law.

Rather than
bailing out the Titanic, libertarians should fight to privatize
public universities. Transferring control of public universities
to non-profit foundations for administration and development would
be one fiscally responsible escape that would allow us to avoid
the socialist calculation problem altogether. Simply implementing
some “more libertarian” centrally-planned admissions standard is
not going to fix Socialist U. Once we move schools to a private,
competitive environment, we can allow the experts in the market
to experiment and devise the best admissions policies for their
individual enterprises.

Because Dalmia
makes the mistake of assuming that the admissions policy that is
the problem, she proposes even more intervention. She says,

Private
schools, of course, should be free to admit whomever they want,
and it is therefore tempting to ignore their use of legacies. But
there are few genuinely private schools in America anymore, thanks
to the enormous amount of federal funding they accept. And setting
public policy aside: Just as a matter of propriety, should there
be room for legacies at institutions that market themselves as bastions
of meritocracy? The use of legacies by the Harvards, Yales, and
Princetons of the world dilutes the standards of excellence they
pretend not merely to uphold, but to embody.

While
she means these thoughts to be noble, they are not self-evidently
correct or noble. Institutions that market themselves a certain
way and don’t satisfy can be dealt with by the market. Surely Dalmia
doesn’t mean to suggest educational protectionism for Harvard and
Yale! Why is it a matter of justice which schools are held
in highest repute? Centrally planned academic prestige is no more
satisfying than any other statist intervention. Harvard, Yale, and
Princeton all came to exist and became prestigious in the market.
Dalmia’s belief that such prestige can be shored up by bureaucratic
intervention in these institutions is both ill-advised as a matter
of economics and historically unfounded.

February
21, 2008

Dick Clark
[send him mail],
a native Southerner, currently lives in exile in the People’s Republic
of Cambridge, MA. He is a first-year law student at Suffolk University
Law School in Boston.

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