More on Amherst Dean of Admissions Tom Parker ’69:

Since [President Anthony] Marx came along, Parker has been speaking out about a virtually taboo subject: how top universities already bend their standards for all kinds of kids. There are the affirmative action programs for minorities, which most elite schools still run. There are also so-called legacy admits, for whom Amherst reserves roughly 10% of its seats, says Parker. Alumni kids get red-carpet treatment, often including a personal audience with Parker. Yet they rank as twos, on average, he says — meaning that some score three or less and wouldn’t be admitted on their academic credentials alone. But top universities simply can’t ignore legacy donations. “The way you finance a place like this is with alumni contributions,” says Parker.


1) Affirmative action programs which “most elite schools still run.” What is with the “most”? I can’t think of a single elite school that does not practice affirmative action for URMs. Should we trust what the writer tells us on other “facts” when she gets this one so wrong?

2) Amherst reserves (precisely?) 10% of the seat for legacies? Interesting. Recall that Williams has approximately 12% legacies for many years. I think that the increasing ratio of graduates to students since the doubling of the size of the college 30 years ago means that legacies today are much more qualified than they were 20 years ago. The fact that Amherst has an explicit 10% quota make it more plausible that Williams does the same. I bet that the international quota of 6% was set to be exactly half of the legacy quota, if there is one.

3) It is not clear if legacy applicants or legacy enrollees have AR 2 on average. I think it is enrollees. I heard from a fellow representative at a college fair last fall that the average SAT score for Amherst legacy accepted students was, like Williams, very high. We have done the math on this before. Short answer is that legacies get some special preference, but nowhere near what URMs and tip athletes receive.

4) Parker knows, and should admit, that fund-raising provides a very tenuous rational for legacy preferences. Consider the current campaign at Williams. Note (page 2) how $200 million out of the $400 million in total money is projected to come from 20 donors. (These families and ones like them get special admission advantages, whether or not they are legacies.) Note the 20,000+ donors (almost all alums) who give less than $100,000. None of these donors matter much to the overall health of the campaign. As long as the College takes care of the big donors, its financial health is not significantly impacted by legacy preferences or the lack thereof.

Recall our post, from Michael Lewis, on this topic in the context of Harvard.

But here’s the rub: Unless they fork over a sensationally huge pile of dough, donors are unlikely to get anything in return from Harvard. A few thousand bucks is unlikely to impress anyone. Even 50 grand won’t improve their children’s odds. (The Harvard application from the legacy whose parents have given less than millions goes into the same pile as the one from the legacy whose parents have given nothing.)

The issues of preferences for big donors (alum and not) is a largely separate issue from those for alums who give less than $1 million. Parker does a disservice by conflating the two.

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