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Harvard Admissions Trial, 3

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 3.

In the last two days, we have established two key facts about legacy students at places like Williams and (?) Harvard. First, legacies — meaning the children and grandchildren of graduates — are about 10% to 20% of each class. Second, legacies as a whole have more impressive academic credentials — meaning test scores and high school grades — than non-legacies.

Is legacy versus non-legacy an apples-to-apples comparison? Probably not. Legacies are whiter, richer and less athletic than the class as a whole. Since all those things make it harder to gain admissions, we really ought to compare legacy students to a “matched” group of non-legacy students, a group with the same distribution of characteristics like race, family income and athletic ability. That would help us to determine if legacies get an advantage or not.

Note that the argument can also go the other way. Consider the case of “development” admits, students who would not have gotten in if their families were not major donors, or at least potential donors. Such admissions are much more likely to be legacy students. But they aren’t getting accepted because of their legacy status. It is their families wealth that is getting them in. They still would have gotten in, regardless of where their parents went to college. Without the family wealth, however, they would have been rejected.

The expert testimony in the Harvard trial tries to tease apart these effects using a regression analysis. We can dive into the details, if anyone is interested.

For me, the key point is the following: Any category of applicants which receives a meaningful advantage in admissions — recruited athletes, racial minorities, billionaire families — will have lower academic qualifications than the class as a whole. If a category, like legacies, has similar academic qualifications than, almost by definition, they did not received a large advantage in admissions.

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#1 Comment By abl On October 17, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

If a category, like legacies, has similar academic qualifications than, almost by definition, they did not received a large advantage in admissions.

That’s not true. If literally every legacy applicant was an AR1 and AR2, and legacies were guaranteed admission, you would simultaneously see (1) that legacies have, on average, higher academic credentials than the average student (because the average student at Williams is not an AR1 / AR2); (2) that legacies received a large boost in admissions (because a 100% acceptance rate would represent a very significant advantage for AR1 and AR2 applicants).

Now, that’s obviously not the case. Legacies are not exclusively AR1s and AR2s, nor, do I think, are all legacies admitted (even for AR1 and AR2 legacy applicants). However, if legacy applicants are disproportionately high academic performers, it would not be unexpected for legacy admits to also be disproportionately (or at the very least proportionately) high academic performers — irrespective of any legacy advantage or lack thereof. And, like you acknowledge, legacy applicants are likely disproportionately high academic performers. As a result, any proportionate (or disproportionately high) number of legacy high performers in the class does not imply that legacy applicants are given no meaningful advantage in the process.

This is particularly true given the role that other soft factors play. If legacy status works in the same manner as significant artistic talent,* for example, you’d expect to see–all else equal–a class of legacy admits who are roughly as academically talented as the class as a whole, but possessing fewer (or weaker) non-legacy hooks. (And, as described immediately above, all else is not equal.) So simply looking to the academic stats of the legacy class as evidence of a (lack of) legacy advantage is not helpful to determining how meaningful of a boost legacy status provides. If legacy status can compensate for the lack of another admissions hook, that could represent a very meaningful advantage that would be reflected by the non-academic stats of the class in question.

But even this advantage may not be well reflected by the non-academic status if legacy applicants are also more likely than the average applicant to have significant non-academic hooks. My point is that, without inside knowledge of the process, or without very good knowledge of the applicant pool and relative admit rates, it’s difficult to look at the class of admitted students and draw these sorts of inferences about the advantage of applying as a legacy student.

(One final factor here is that you are looking at matriculants to try to understand admission. Assuming the strongest admits at less likely to attend Williams than the weakest admits–likely–and that legacies are more likely to attend Williams than non legacies–likely–you would expect the legacy pool of matriculants to be especially strong relative to the legacy pool of applicants. This would lead to the class of legacy matriculants to somewhat overrepresent the strength of the class of legacy admits, at least as compared to the student body as a whole.)

*Being a Berkshire Symphony-level violinist is not going to get you into Williams with bad grades. But it will often/usually be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection for an AR1, AR2, AR3, and even sometimes AR4 applicant. In other words, if your chances of being accepted as an AR1 applicant is 50%, your chance of being accepted as an AR1 applicant who plays violin well enough to play in the Berkshire Symphony may go up to 90%. If your chances of being admitted as an AR2 applicant are 25%, your chances of being admitted as an AR2 applicant who plays violin … etc … may go up to 60%. Etc, etc. That’s a very meaningful boost (without being nearly as significant as, say, that received by recruited athletes).

#2 Comment By ZSD On October 17, 2018 @ 3:17 pm

abl …

Your violinist examples (above) engender in me a dream of The Williams All-Legacy Orchestra.

This desirable admissions criterion might inspire a greater number of double reed players, the dedication to cutting reeds for the oboe and bassoon thus being so positively reinforced.

#3 Comment By frank uible On October 17, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

Q to a Senior by a First Year violinist then located at Hopkins Hall: How do I get to Chapin Hall? A by the Senior to the First Year: Practice, practice, practice!

#4 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On October 17, 2018 @ 7:05 pm

abl: I really want to trust your testimony on admissions issues, but then you give us nonsense like this:

Being a Berkshire Symphony-level violinist is not going to get you into Williams with bad grades. But it will often/usually be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection for an AR1, AR2, AR3, and even sometimes AR4 applicant.

No AR3/AR4 applicants get into Williams solely (or even mainly) because of music. 95% of the AR3/AR4 admittees are minority and/or athlete and/or poor and/or first-gen, with the remaining 5% the usual smatterings of billionaires, prof kids and so on. Some might also be musicians, but that isn’t the driver. Just ask Dick Nesbitt!

We are able to admit roughly 120 top rated musicians each year from the top of the academic reader rating scale–what we refer to as academic 1′ and 2’s (broadly defined as 1500+ SAT’s and very top of the class).

Why would Williams ever, ever admit an AR4 for his musical ability when there are scores of musicians among the AR1 and AR2s for us to choose from? Answer: We don’t.

For you to suggest that we do, and that this might even be common, is the worst sort of misdirection.

#5 Comment By abl On October 17, 2018 @ 8:08 pm

DDF —

I suppose there is a question of causation here. My point was that for an AR3/AR4 applicant with a colorable chance of admission, being a world-class violinist will often be the difference-maker. There are students admitted each year who would not get in but for their artistic talent. You are also correct that there are few AR3s/AR4s admitted solely because of their musical talents. (Dick’s point is a bit of rhetorical bluster: Williams does admit some AR3s and AR4s because, in some part, of their musical talents.)

The complicated thing here is that most admits* generally have multiple “hooks.” E.g., an AR4 applicant may be from the rural deep south and be a world-class violinist and have written a particularly interesting personal statement. It will often be the case that just one hook will be insufficient for admission (irrespective of AR ranking — especially beyond AR1s and especially for hooks other than URM or recruited athlete).

In other words, my answer oversimplifies a bit. I’m sorry if, in me doing so, you were/felt misled. The added complexity of reality, though, doesn’t actually take away from the underlying point I was making. The fact that Williams legacies are statistically academically on par (or slight overperformers) vis a vis the rest of the Williams class doesn’t actually indicate that Williams legacies are given no (or no significant) admissions preference. In fact, given what you yourself recognize about Williams admission and about legacies, we should expect Williams legacy matriculants to have equal or stronger academic stats than average even in a world in which legacies were given substantial admission preference.

*This is especially true in the context of admits who are not a recruited athlete or URM–the population we are discussing now.

#6 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On October 18, 2018 @ 8:16 am

My point was that for an AR3/AR4 applicant with a colorable chance of admission, being a world-class violinist will often be the difference-maker.

True! As long as we agree that 90% (95%? 99%?) of AR3/AR4 admittees also fall into one of the major hook categories (but not athletic tips, because coaches don’t care). In other words, every AR3/AR4 applicant whose violin playing affects their Williams admissions is also black/Hispanic and/or first-gen and/or low income. That is, if you are just a “normal” Asian/white/rich AR3/AR4 applicant, then, even if you are a great violinist, you will be rejected because Williams has more than enough AR1/AR2 great violinists to choose from.

You are also correct that there are few AR3s/AR4s admitted solely because of their musical talents

Where “few” means, at most, 1 or 2 per year, and much more commonly, zero. Perhaps we agree!

The complicated thing here is that most admits* generally have multiple “hooks.” E.g., an AR4 applicant may be from the rural deep south and be a world-class violinist and have written a particularly interesting personal statement.

This is only complicated because you keep describing unicorns. If you are an AR4 applicant non-athlete, you are not getting in unless you are one or more of black/Hispanic/poor/first-gen.