• 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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