Why do schools admit inheritance? Amherst abandons admission preferences.

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Eliminating bequest admissions could result in lower donations.

Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg

About the authors: Pierre Arcidiacono is Professor of Economics at Duke University, Associate Researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Researcher at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Josh kinsler is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Georgia. Tyler Ransom is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Oklahoma and Affiliate Researcher at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Peter Arcidiacono was an expert witness and Josh Kinsler was a consultant for Students for Fair Admissions in the case of SFFA v. Harvard.

Amherst College announced last week that it would be removing direct admission preferences for legacy applicants. Amherst joins other prominent institutions, such as Johns Hopkins, MIT, and CalTech, which ignore legacy status in admissions. Yet inherited preferences remain in place in many of America’s elite institutions. In fact, bequests now play a bigger role in admissions than at any time in recent decades. This is due to a combination of three factors: lack of transparency; the role of donations; and an enhanced competitive admissions environment.

Bequests are those that have family ties to a university, including the children of former students. Measuring the benefits of inheritances in admissions is complicated because universities monitor their data closely. As a result, universities are able to say that inheritance is just a “tiebreaker” in admissions, and that inheritances as a group are just as skilled as their non-inherited counterparts without any scrutiny. to find out if this is really true.

Our own research on inherited preferences uses data made public in the court case Student for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. We find that not only do bequests receive substantial admission preferences, but these benefits have increased over time. In the mid-1980s, bequests were admitted at a rate of about 35%, the same rate as in the mid-2010s. But during the same period, the admission rate of those who were not neither inheritances nor athletes fell from more than 12% to less than 5%.

The advantages of inheritances in terms of admission are in addition to the fact that the admission process aims to favor people from more advantaged backgrounds. While SAT scores are generally considered to favor the wealthy, other admission criteria favor the wealthy more. At Harvard, inheritance applicants have, on average, slightly better academic backgrounds based on race. But where they score particularly strong compared to their non-traditional counterparts is on the personal and athletic note of Harvard. The sports rating in particular rewards factors such as participation in sports offered by Harvard, such as sailing and skiing, which often require significant financial investment.

Since elite university legacies tend to come from wealthier backgrounds, the recent move away from standardized tests for college admissions may benefit them further. Non-academic factors tend to favor the wealthy more than academic ones. Indeed, recent research by a team at Stanford shows that income is more strongly correlated with the content and style of application essays than with the SAT.

The fact that inherited preferences are so strong, even in the face of the advantages these students already have in the process, indicates serious inequalities in the admissions system. Polls indicate a strong loathing for inherited preferences. Why, then, do so many universities continue to favor traditional applicants?

Much of the inherited preferences come from two sources: money and information. Schools with more resources can provide a better quality product. Donations from elders can help in this regard. By using opaque admissions processes where no one knows the benefits that inheritances actually receive, these schools can also admit more inheritances without suffering adverse reputational consequences.

These two forces have generated a reciprocal process in which legacies receive an increase in admissions and, in turn, donate to the university. A 2009 article by Jonathan Meer and Harvey S. Rosen shows just that, analyzing how alumni contributions to a research university change with the age and admission results of their children. They found that alumni contributions increased as children reached college age. Moreover, if the child was admitted by the university, the donations increased even more. But if the child was rejected, the donations of the former students fell sharply. Greater inheritance preferences lead to more donations, which helps fund the university. Additionally, the universities’ status as nonprofits allows donors to legally deduct contributions from their income taxes, unlike the illegal means of receiving preferences revealed during the college admissions scandal.

Now that Amherst has given up on inherited preferences, will other selective universities follow suit? The answer lies in how their removal would affect the university’s bottom line. Eliminating inherited preferences could lead to a drop in donations.

But keeping legacy preferences can hurt a university’s bottom line when those preferences are in the public eye. Inherited preferences are unpopular. The more the public learns about how legacy preferences work, the more pressure universities will feel to remove them. Indeed, revelations about the benefits of inheritance have led organizations to encourage boycott of donations to schools with inheritance preferences. Schools that remove legacy benefits, especially before their competitors do, may see increased contributions from donors who value more egalitarian admissions practices.

Inherited preferences persist in part because there is little public accountability for these practices. Our hope is that making admissions practices more transparent will cause students, parents and donors to assess their choices in light of this practice. Even if the inherited preferences themselves survive, public pressure from a more transparent admission process may prevent them from being such a dominant factor in the admission process.

Guest comments like this are written by authors outside of the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the views and opinions of the authors. Submit comments and other comments to [email protected]

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