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Harvard Admissions Trial, 2

See The Wall Street Journal for background on the Harvard admissions trial which starts this week. Best commentary is from Razib Khan at Gene Expression. Should we provide daily coverage, connecting news from the courtroom to EphBlog’s coverage of admissions issues at Williams over the last 15 years? In the meantime, let’s spend this week reviewing some of aspects of the debate. Day 2.

Yesterday, we confirmed that 10% to 20% of each class at elite colleges like Harvard and Williams are “legacy,” meaning students with a parent (or sometimes just a grandparent) who attended the college. Today, we review how much being a legacy affects one’s chances at admissions.

The brute fact is that the average Williams legacy is more academically impressive — higher SAT/ACT scores, better high school grades, more impressive teacher recommendations, et cetera — than the average non-legacy. Whatever advantages legacies have in the admissions process is de minimus. The same is almost certainly true at places like Harvard. Razib is wrong when he writes:

I think the current lawsuit may win on the merits, but the “Deep Oligarchy” is more powerful than the judiciary or the executive branch. If, on the other hand, Harvard gets rid of legacies and special backdoor admissions, I’ll admit I was wrong, and the chosen have lost control of the system. As long as legacies and backdoor admissions continue, you know that the eyes are on the prize of power and glory.

Harvard and Williams have, already, gotten “rid of legacies” in terms of this being something that matters significantly in admissions. Let’s review the story at Williams.

1) Back in the 1980s and before, legacy was a significant advantage in admissions, partly because there were so few high quality legacy applicants. These were the children of the 50s graduates, an era when lots of not-too-smart men attended Williams.

2) Things began to change in the 90s and 00s. First, the raw number of alumni grew significantly. (Williams doubled in size, mainly as a result of the move to co-education.) The pool of legacies doubled in size as well. Second, the academic quality of the students was much higher in the 60s and 70s, which led to smarter children. Rising numbers and quality of legacy applicants meant that Williams could become more choosy. And so we did. From 2008:

Morty [then-President of Williams] 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. Morty noted that the way that some people measure this — by comparing the general admissions rate (16%) with the legacy admission rate (40%?) — was misleading because legacy applicants are often told ahead of time that they have no chance. So, they don’t apply and/or withdraw their applications, thus artificially increasing the legacy acceptance rate. Non-legacies with no chance are not given this inside scoop. They just apply and get rejected.

3) All those trends have continued to this day. From 2017:

I [Director of Communication Mary Detloff] had a conversation with [Director of Admissions] 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.

4) I have had off-the-record conversations which suggest that, for the class of 2021, the 10% of students who are legacy have meaningfully stronger academic credentials than the 90% who are not legacy. This is precisely what the trend over the last 30 years would have led us to expect. Williams classes in the late 1980s were filled with smart people. Although I can’t find fecundity data, I bet that there are at least 500 (or more like 1,000?) 18-year-olds each year who are Eph legacies. Regression to the mean is brutal, but it only occurs on average. It is hardly surprising of 50 to 100 of those children would be as smart (or smarter) than their parents. Williams won’t get all of these, of course, but it will have scores of great applicants to choose from. (And the exact same math applies at Harvard.)

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#1 Comment By abl On October 16, 2018 @ 3:09 pm

Keep it up — this discussion has been interesting so far.

My time at Williams coincided with Morty’s, so my experience is getting somewhat stale, but I do think that the advantage of being a legacy is somewhat underplayed here. Few students at Williams are admitted solely on the strength of their academic background. I generally describe Williams’ admission process as being an academics + hook model. You need to have something, in addition to a strong academic record, that persuades adcoms that you deserve a spot. It is the hook, generally, (or lack thereof) that determines which specific [x]% of AR1s are admitted, which specific [y]% of AR2s are admitted, etc (and, obviously, you need stronger hooks or more hooks to be admitted as an AR3 vs an AR1). Being a legacy is, without a doubt, not the strongest hook that students can have (and I’m sure that it’s a much less strong hook now than it was 50 years ago). But it is also not the weakest. For example: I’d rather be a legacy AR1 applicant than a fifth-chair all-county violinist AR1 applicant (e.g., good enough to merit a respectable resume line but not good enough to play in the Berkshire Symphony). This means that there are routinely legacies who are admitted to Williams who would not be admitted were they not legacies. In fact, although I have no specific recollection of this, I’d be surprised if legacy AR1 applicants are almost ever rejected from Williams — short of some serious red flags.

Note: I’m not actually arguing against legacy admission to Williams. As you know from my other posts, I think that soft factors — like veteran-status, URM-status, or an impressive talent in the arts — should play a meaningful role in admission to a place like Williams. There are reasonable reasons to favor legacies in this process, from matriculation %s to donations to overall spiritual investment in the school. Given that legacy admission has somewhat gone out of style, though, most schools are currently in the business of underplaying the role that legacy status plays in admission. I just wanted to push back on your assumption, based on the self-serving representations of administrators, that legacy status is effectively meaningless in admissions. It’s not (or at least it wasn’t ~10 years ago — although I really doubt that has materially changed).

PS Williams does discourage ‘definite reject’ legacy applicants from applying, but that doesn’t necessarily account for all of the relatively higher legacy admission rate.

#2 Comment By frank uible On October 16, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

What factor(s) has caused the academic quality of Williams legacies to improve significantly as suggested here?

#3 Comment By 1980 On October 17, 2018 @ 9:52 am

I would be surprised if the legacy student stats were “meaningfully stronger”. Slightly stronger, yes.

#4 Comment By frank uible On October 20, 2018 @ 11:04 am

Mr. Khan needs, if he desires to convince those who matter, a lesson in brevity so that his conclusion amounts to a very short summary.