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Legacy Admissions Play No Meaningful Role at Elite Colleges

legacy

tl;dr: Legacy status does not provide a meaningful advantage in admissions to elite colleges like Williams. People like Sam Altman and Arjun Narayan ’10 are wrong, either because of genuine ignorance or because of a (unconscious?) refusal to confront the major beneficiaries of admissions preferences: athletes and (non-Asian) racial minorities. (If Sam has complained about extra considerations that Stanford gives football players and African-Americans, I must have missed it.)

Hasn’t Arjun Narayan ’10 ever read EphBlog? We have been documenting these facts for over a decade. From 2008:

Morty [then Williams President Morton Schapiro] noted that a decade or so ago [or perhaps when he arrived?], the average legacy was a 3.3 on the 1-9 scale of academic ranks while the average non-legacy was 2.3. Morty did not seem to be a huge fan of this gap, or of giving legacies such a preference. He then noted that the latest statistics show that legacy and non-legacy are now equivalent (both at 2.3). Morty confirmed, consistent with all the analysis I have done, that being a legacy is not a meaningful advantage in getting into Williams.

Director of Communications Mary Dettloff kindly provided this update for 2017:

I had a conversation with Dick Nesbitt about this, and he says it has long been our policy not to release academic standing information for specific subgroups of students. That said, he also shared that for at least the last 20 years, the legacy students have had equal, if not marginally stronger, SAT scores and Academic Rating when compared to the rest of their classmates.

Case closed.[1]

More importantly, should we be surprised that students whose parents went to elite colleges are much more likely to win admissions to elite colleges themselves? No! Nature and nurture are passed down through the generations now, just as they always have been.

Consider professional baseball. From the New York Times:

baseball

A random US man has a 1-in-15,000 chance of playing in the MLB. The son of an MLB player has a 1-in-75 chance. In other words, your odds of playing in the MLB are 200 times higher of your father played. Given that fact, should we be surprised if your odds of coming to Williams are 200 times higher if your parent is an Eph?

The mechanisms in both cases are the same. Genetics play a major role. The specific genes — probably thousands of them — that help you to hit a curve ball are passed from father to son. The genes that aid in doing well in school and on standardized tests are passed on just as easily. Nurture matters. Baseball players probably provide their sons with a better than average environment in which to learn baseball. Ephs who become parents do the same. You should no more be surprised at the high numbers of legacies at elite colleges than at the high numbers of baseball children in the Majors.[2]

However, it is interesting to consider how legacy admissions have evolved in the last 30 years. In the 1980’s, it was tough for Williams to find 75 high quality legacies in drawing from Williams classes of the 1950s. First, the college was much smaller than, with fewer than half the current student population. Second, Williams was much less academically rigorous. (That is, there were plenty of not-very-smart students.)

In the 80’s, there were 500 academically accomplished students per class. Judging/guessing from what we see at reunions, the total number of children of a typical class is at least 500 and probably closer to 1,000. But only 75 or so find spots at Williams! Do the other 425 go to Stanford? Nope. And the same harsh mathematics apply to the children of other elite schools. Since smart people have smart children, the pool of legacies that the College has to choose from is very impressive. Williams does not need to lower standards at all to find 75 good ones.[3]

—————-
[1] To be fair to Altman/Narayan, there are some subtle counter-arguments. First, if it is the case that legacies, as a group, differ from non-legacies on other dimensions besides academic rating, then it might not be fair to compare the two groups directly. Instead, we should compare legacies with non-legacies who “look” like legacies. For example, if legacies are more likely to be white and non-poor, then comparing them with non-legacies is makes no sense. Instead, we should compare them with similarly white/non-poor non-legacies.

Second, it could be the case that legacies come in two flavors: over-qualified and under-qualified. The over-qualified ones are exceptional candidates who turn down Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford for Williams. The under-qualified ones receive substantial preferences in admissions. Combining the two groups creates an overall legacy group which is similar to non-legacies but which “masks” the substantial advantages given to under-qualified legacies.

[2] Of course, legacy students are much more likely to attend their parents’ alma mater than legacy baseball players are to play for the same team as their fathers. Exercise for the reader: Explore the industrial organization of elite colleges and major league baseball to explain this difference. Perhaps a better view is to consider all the legacy students as a whole, in the same way that the New York Times considers all the legacy baseball players. But this post is already long enough . . .

[3] sigh, an EphBlog regular, points out this study (pdf) on “The impact of legacy status on undergraduate admissions at elite colleges and universities.” The author argues that legacy status matters a great (or at least did matter in the fall of 2007). I have my doubts. Let’s dive into the details in the comments!

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#1 Comment By sigh On April 10, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

well, if David asserts it, it must be true. As opposed to actual statistical models that are based off of actual admissions data:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272775710001676

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 10, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

sigh: Does that seem like high quality work to you? Are its results consistent with Nisbett’s claim that SAT scores for legacies are higher than those for non-legacies?

I have not read the study yet, but I bet it is subject to some massive biases.

For example, during the period of its data collection, Williams (and many other elite colleges) would tell some legacy applicants that they were likely to be rejected before they ever applied. Non-legacy applicants did not receive this courtesy. That fact alone would make it very hard, in the context of a logistic regression, to accurately estimate legacy preferences . . .

UPDATE: I have added a link to the study in the main post. Thanks sigh! Now I need to read it . . .

#3 Comment By sigh On April 10, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

“I have not read the study yet.” Maybe do that first next time?

#4 Comment By JCD On April 10, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

– Sigh

More DDF bashing today? I don’t understand how this glorious ACTUAL. STATISTICAL. MODEL. is even relevant to DDF’s argument. It doesn’t control for the parent’s IQ. DDF is making an interesting, sophisticated, multi-sided point. Simply dumping an unrelated fire-walled journal article on him isn’t even close to refuting his central argument.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 10, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

JCD: I need to defend sigh on this. 1) Parents IQ has nothing to do with this debate. 2) We now have a copy of the article (see the update to the post), so I really should read it. 3) I might be wrong!

#6 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On April 10, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

JCD: I need to defend sigh on this. 1) Parents IQ has nothing to do with this debate. 2) We now have a copy of the article (see the update to the post), so I really should read it. 3) I might be wrong!

This week’s sign of the apocalypse! Also a sign that Ephs (and others) can and should be able to have vigorous debate without the necessity of personal rancor.

#7 Comment By JCD On April 10, 2017 @ 5:41 pm

My experience from 1986-1989 is that the legacy students who came to my attention were completely overwhelmed by the non-legacy students. I can’t remember, for example, a single high performing student of mine who was also a legacy student.

As I read your argument, however, I see you were making an argument based on genetics.

A random US man has a 1-in-15,000 chance of playing in the MLB. The son of an MLB player has a 1-in-75 chance. In other words, your odds of playing in the MLB are 200 times higher of your father played. Given that fact, should we be surprised if your odds of coming to Williams are 200 times higher if your parent is an Eph?

The mechanisms in both cases are the same. Genetics play a major role.

There is nothing in the article that has anything to do with what applicants inherit from their parents in terms of either nature or nurture. Nothing.

Moreover, your argument was largely based on taking Williams College officials at their word regarding the average scores of legacy vs. non-legacy students. The article shows substantial variation in the legacy advantage among colleges, so much so that the results appear to apply better to the universities than the colleges. There is room for your perspective to be largely correct given the results of the study.

My guess is that the average legacy student has always been among the least impressive applicants and that the official statements regarding their comparability to non-legacy students today is simply evidence of a dramatic and remarkable decline in quality of the non-legacy students.

If the legacy students now have SATs comparable to the SATs for the non-legacy student then the overall quality of the student body at Williams College is falling into the basement.

#8 Comment By Williams Alum On April 10, 2017 @ 8:07 pm

I love JCD.

#9 Comment By Arjun Narayan On April 12, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

ARs are irrelevant.

The admission function, call it f, is f(AR, other stuff). It’s pretty clear that legacy preference fits into the 2nd argument of this function. So you would expect both groups to have roughly equal average ARs. So what? The important question to ask is, holding ARs constant, does being a legacy massively improve the probability that you get admitted to Williams? The answer is clearly yes.

Now you (David) may not care, because, as long as two candidates are equally qualified (academically), why not admit the one with closer ties? I care, because its fundamentally classist and bullshit.

But it also calls into question why non-AR related “other stuff” even is a valid category for judging admission candidates. Under this model, admitted legacies clearly have, as a pool, lower non-legacy-pref “other stuff” than non-legacy admits. So, if we assume that those non-AR non-legacy things matter, we’re accepting lower quality students. If we assume that ARs only matter, then we should throw the whole admit function out and just do it blindly on test scores. If you don’t accept either of those two options, then its pretty clear that the legacy preference is just bullshit.

Finally, legacy preferences are also a nice neat instrumental variable to make the admit pool less Asian. Let’s not forget that pressing need of admissions committees everywhere (except Caltech).

#10 Comment By KSM On April 12, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

that for at least the last 20 years, the legacy students have had equal, if not marginally stronger, SAT scores and Academic Rating when compared to the rest of their classmates.

Case closed
Don’t be naive. Williams Admissions aren’t the first to pull this bait-and-switch. Yale have made similar remarks regarding legacies. What they don’t tell you is that whites and Asians lacking the legacy hook need to be a lot better than “equal, if not marginally stronger” than the school average. Without a legacy, a student applying to a selective LAC should aim for the 75th percentile, which I take to be approximately the bottom end of AR 1. In terms of the old SAT, this would be 770 on the Math (vs 708 Williams average) and 780 on Critical Reading (vs 720 averages). These 75th percentile scores are each about a half-standard deviation higher than the average scores. So, a half-standard deviation in academic ability is what legacy status buys you at Williams.

refusal to confront the major beneficiaries of admissions preferences: athletes and (non-Asian) racial minorities.
It’s true that those groups are held to even lower standards. But that doesn’t mean the legacy benefit isn’t significant, or is nonexistent (el oh el).

Williams does not need to lower standards at all to find 75 good ones.
It most certainly does, as per above. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many children of Williams alums who could get in under the same standards as other unhooked applicants. It’s just that many of those kids, like everybody else, are going to the best schools they can get into. HYPS, etc. And some might prefer a peer (Amherst, Swat) just to avoid the legacy stigma.

#11 Comment By frank uible On October 25, 2017 @ 7:50 am

How about solely using the drawing of applicants’ names out of a hat to determine admission? It would be more more democratic than the current process and would produce a more real world student body. But who wants democracy in a real world?