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The Legacy of Legacies

by Jerome Karabel

Admissions policy is an especially popular topic on campus this time of year. As new students arrive, they inevitably ask one another the same questions: Where did you apply? Did you get in anywhere else? Why did you decide to come here?

They are personal questions, of course, often asked more out of courtesy than curiosity, but their answers reveal a story about not only America's system of higher education, but also America's ideals. President Bush appealed to these ideals last month when he acknowledged that while he was the beneficiary of a so-called legacy preference (that is, he was admitted to Yale in part because other members of his family had gone there), he believed that admission to college "ought to be based on merit."

It is an admirable goal. Yet the persistence of legacy preferences may not be fully appreciated by either Mr. Bush or his opponent, John Kerry, who has also called for their abolition - and whose father also went to Yale. If America is to take advantage of this rare bipartisan opportunity to end this form of affirmative action for the privileged, it may be helpful to know the full story of legacy preferences in general and Mr. Bush's in particular.

In the fall of 1963, George W. Bush was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., facing the same dilemma confronting his 232 classmates: where to apply to college. He had never made the honor roll, and his verbal score on the SAT was a mediocre 566. Although popular among his classmates, he was neither an exceptional athlete nor did he possess any particularly outstanding extracurricular talents. Looking over his record, Andover's dean of students suggested that the young Mr. Bush consider applying to schools other than Yale, the alma mater of his father and grandfather.

But unbeknownst to the dean and Mr. Bush, Yale had quietly changed its admissions policy toward alumni sons during the very months when his application was under consideration. As the number of applicants to Yale increased, the administration decided that it could no longer afford to treat all legacy applicants equally. Instead, it would differentiate among alumni sons, giving extra preference on the basis of the family's contribution to Yale and its importance to American society.

As the son of a prominent Texas oilman then running for the United States Senate - and the grandson of a United States senator from Connecticut who had recently served as a member of the Yale Corporation - George W. Bush was no ordinary applicant. In April 1964, he was accepted to Yale - unlike 49 percent of all alumni sons who applied that year.

Less than two years later, in an abrupt change in policy, Yale's new dean of admissions, R. Inslee Clark, presided over a radical reduction in legacy preference. By 1967, Mr. Clark's second year in office, the proportion of alumni sons in the freshman class plummeted to 12 percent from 17 percent in the class of 1968, George W. Bush's class.

The reaction of the alumni was swift and furious. By the end of 1966, the alumni were in open revolt, and Yale's alumni board hastily formed a special committee to investigate the matter. In 1967, William F. Buckley, an alumnus then running an insurgent campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation, declared that Yale had ceased to be the "kind of place where your family goes for generations" and had been transformed into an institution where "the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere."

In truth, Yale had not eliminated the legacy preference even under Mr. Clark. But the new dean had brought the admissions rate of legacy applicants closer to that of non-legacy applicants than at any point in Yale's history. By 1970, Mr. Clark was gone, and by 1974 - just as a major fund-raising effort was beginning - the legacy preference was even stronger than when George W. Bush and John F. Kerry had applied more than a decade earlier.

Yale's chief competitors, Harvard and Princeton, took due note of the turmoil created by this radical experiment, and neither ever tried an admissions policy remotely as meritocratic as Yale's under Dean Clark. (Recently, both Harvard and Princeton have admitted legacy applicants at a rate more than triple that of non-legacy applicants.)

The consequences of the Yale episode are with us still, for the elite colleges drew from it the lesson that the costs of seriously encroaching on alumni privileges are simply too high. Because of the elite universities' investment in the current system, change is unlikely to come from within. But President Bush's denunciation of legacy preference may well have set in motion a public debate that will bring about the demise of this anachronistic policy.

A useful first step would be consideration of a bill introduced last fall by Senator Edward Kennedy that would require universities "to publish data on the racial and socioeconomic composition of legatees." So, too, would a requirement that universities disclose the admission rate of legacies and non-legacies as a way of casting a spotlight on a policy that is, in the end, indefensible.

Such legislation may not end legacy preferences. But it would subject them to the public scrutiny befitting a democratic society - a scrutiny that could well be fatal.

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