The rich get richer, once more

Take a look at this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education documenting the important role of legacy preferences—admissions boosts to the children of alumni—in college acceptance rates.  It raises the question, as our colleague Rick Cohen puts it at the Nonprofit Quarterly, “why tax preferred institutions of higher education in many cases get to use their tax-exempt status to serve children of immense wealth and privilege.”

This is the real issue embedded in another question frequently asked: “Why do well-endowed universities get tax breaks?”   The answer to that can easily be “because education is a public good,” but if that good is available disproportionately to a tiny subset of the public then the entire edifice of tax protection for elite institutions starts to crumble.

Legacy preferences are regularly justified on the grounds that they’re necessary to assure alumni loyalty and therefore alumni financial support.  As the Chronicle article documents, the evidence for this is ambiguous at best.  But even if it were true, it’s not clear why the convenience of fundraising officers should trump society’s legitimate questions about how it’s allocating scarce benefits among competing groups of beneficiaries.  And as long as universities receive tax breaks, it is the broader society that’s doing the allocating and has the right to ask the question.

And here’s another question we have a right to ask: why is affirmative action a problem when it benefits poor people and minorities but not when it benefits wealthy white people?  “Legacy preferences” is, after all, a euphemism for making sure that thems that has, gits—and gits more.

Most colleges and universities these days would regard it as an ethical violation to accept tobacco money, or porn money.   Why should their ethical standards tolerate accepting privilege money—which means, essentially, accepting a bribe?  It makes little sense for the source of money to be evaluated for purity while its purpose goes unquestioned.

As an ex-admissions officer, the Nonprofiteer is more familiar with legacy preferences than she ever wanted to be, and she can assure her readers that merely being the child of an alumnus is not a bona fide occupational qualification.   Plenty of successful alumni have no-‘count kids—hence the old saw about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”  Nor does it matter that the practice is long-established.  Ivy League colleges had a long-established practice of coordinating their scholarship packages (to keep students from choosing among them on the basis of cost), until someone read and implemented the antitrust laws.  The sky didn’t fall as a result of that change, and it won’t as a result of this one.

Of all the ways in which universities violate the spirit if not the letter of the laws granting them tax advantages (from running semi-professional sports teams to serving as research arms of the military), legacy preferences are perhaps the most damaging.  Every legacy preference helps perpetuate a system of inequality.  Every legacy preference deprives someone better-qualified of an opportunity s/he’s earned.  What’s more, the howls of protest that go up when that accusation is leveled at some other system of preference are nowhere to be heard.

If institutions of higher learning want to maintain their tax-favored status, they should abolish legacy preferences.  If they don’t—if they go on practicing white people’s affirmative action—they deserve to be knocked off the comfortable perch on which they now sit.

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7 Responses to “The rich get richer, once more”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Legacy preferences are both a cause and a symptom of hypocrisy in the academy. No other sector so adores Merit and exploits it so devotedly. And dishonestly. If university officials and faculty were forced or encouraged to stop favoring the rich along the lines you and Cohen suggest, they might get more in the habit of applying fairness to themselves and their colleagues.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I think hypocrisy, in turn, is a symptom of the academy’s lack of accountability. I don’t want to end up in bed with Grassley and those who sneer at higher education; but more people should ask more questions about the fairness of hiring and compensation policies in universities instead of just assuming that equality must be the rule in those “left-leaning” institutions.

  2. Nancy Johnson Says:

    It is interesting that many Universities have, in recent years, also adopted the alternate rich peoples’ affirmative action program – “We’re 85% need blind.” Translation: If you can pay, you can have a spot even without a legacy preference.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Absolutely–“need blind” usually means “blind to the needs of middle-class and poor people.” The whole student aid system is so half-assed, though, that it’s hard to know where to begin in reforming it–though President Obama’s decision to remove the bank middlemen from the Guaranteed Student Loan program was a great start.

  3. Ben Sheldon Says:

    I’m sympathetic to the overall sentiment, but I’m always worried when an organization’s activities are judged against an arbitrary measure of “nonprofitness”. The strength of the sector—hard fought over 150 years of legislation and case law—is the breadth of allowable activity. The danger of reform is codifying subjective and contemporary distaste as unlawful behavior, thus limiting the ability of truly transformative organizations to form or function. How might Howard University, for example, find egalitarian social benefit in favoring legacy students?

    When an organization’s status as a “nonprofit” is the basis for allegations of hypocrisy I find that the outcome usually furthers the goals of those who wish to do away with the nonprofit sector by doing away with taxes entirely (and by extension their social and redistributive benefits). Which is not to dismiss all nonprofit reform (I am quite in support of transparency and reporting), but the real issue here is not “How can we get more poor kids into Harvard?” but “Harvard should not be your only or best option.”

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Fair point–and I may have overstated my own (so new?). I certainly am not part of the group you describe which opposes taxes–far from it. But the nonprofit community has long regarded itself as above criticism, and I think the portions of it which foster inequality should be called to account. Perhaps depriving those institutions of their nonprofit status is using a sledgehammer where a scalpel would be preferable–I’m certainly open to that possibility. But that there is an ailment to be addressed strikes me as indisputable.

  4. Apparently I’m nonprofitly conservative « Island 94 Says:

    […] contexts I'm a blazing radical and in others I'm a hold-your-horses conservative. In response to this article on the Nonprofiteer: If institutions of higher learning want to maintain their tax-favored status, they should abolish […]

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