Thursday, March 24, 2005

Legacy preferences: a response

David has offered an extremely thoughtful response to my post. Before I paste below his response, let me say that he and I have cleared up a point of confusion. We agree that even without a legacy preference policy in place, legacies would still be admitted at a somewhat (but not dramatically) higher rate than non-legacies because legacies are more likely as a class to be more academically accomplished. (So as not to confuse the reader further before pasting David's reply, I explain the source of confusion more fully in a comment below this post.)

Although David and I have reached agreement on that one point, we still disagree on what it means that legacies are more likely as a class to have better records of academic achievement. Without further ado, here is his reply:
You say you agree that legacy applicants are better qualified, "if only because the socioeconomic status of one's parents is the greatest predictor of academic performance."

But what, exactly, does the correlation between socioeconomic status and academic success imply? My guess is that you would be inclined to say that wealth and social connections -- which children receive independent of their merit -- create an unearned and undeserved advantage for those children who happen to luck into them. But the correlation between wealth (or, if you prefer, "socioeconomic status") and academic success does not imply that wealth _causes_ academic success. Projecting a cause where you see a correlation is perhaps the cardinal sin of social science. And I would argue, in this case, that parental wealth and child academic success are less likely to be a cause/effect pair, and rather more likely to be two effects of the same cause, namely industry, thrift and discipline on the part of the parents.

But then, why should that argument be enough to let the legacies off the hook for their good fortune? Sure, their success might have nothing to do with wealth. But they are still helped along by the industry, thrift, and discipline of their parents. Shouldn't they be handicapped for that as well? I mean, kids don't choose to have disciplined, hardworking parents who value education -- they just luck into it or they don't.

And why stop with the parents? If a kid happens to have a lot of will power, or to be inclined toward pleasing her elders, or to enjoy academics more than video games, those are unchosen advantages themselves, right? So why even reward people for doing well at all?

That way lies madness. The reason for letting the best students into the best schools is that excellence is worthy, full stop. Life includes the fact that people are dealt different hands to start with. We owe it to everyone to give them a strong start -- to give everyone the chance to succeed, via a good universally available public education. But we have no way of drawing a bright line between the advantages people start with and the individual choices for which they are personally accountable. I would worry that you don't even have a coherent way to specify anything for which it's right to hold people accountable -- and to use as a basis for reward -- once you commit yourself to cancelling out every antecedent, unchosen influence on a person's life. We need to make sure that everyone gets up to the starting line, and we (try to and ought to) do that through public education. But we can't, and shouldn't, presume to make everyone an equally strong runner.


Blogger putonyourspecs said...

Regarding the source of confusion, David had taken issue with the column by Mr. LaFemina noting that the admission rate for legacies is 39% but only 12% for non-legacies. David read Mr. LaFemina's column to imply that without the boost of the legacy preference program, "only a third of the legacy applicants would get in, and that's almost certainly too low an estimate." I had understood David to be saying that the admission rate for legacies, currently at 39%, would still remain over 33% even without the legacy preference program in place. But David says that what he meant was that "legacies would not sink from triple the regular rate to less than the regular rate." Put this way, we are in agreement.

3/24/2005 10:03:00 PM  

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