Skip to comments.College Preferences by Race, Sex and Legacy Status
Posted on 07/11/2003 5:04:23 AM PDT by rhema
Ever since opponents of affirmative action began criticizing the recent Supreme Court rulings that breathed longer life into preferential college-admissions policies, affirmative action supporters have repeatedly accused their ideological adversaries of intellectual inconsistency, selective outrage, and in some cases outright racism. They complain that the anti-preference contingent has focused its reproach largely on racial preferences, rather than on those awarded for legacy status or sex the latter of which, they contend, produce white female beneficiaries in numbers far surpassing the black beneficiaries yielded by race preferences. These contentions warrant a serious response.
Many colleges, in their ceaseless quest to manipulate and micro-manage the composition of their student bodies, do in fact give preference to some women over men with better academic qualifications. And yes, this is philosophically repugnant to those who oppose any preferences awarded merely for physical, rather than merit-related, considerations. But it must be pointed out that in practicing such sex-based preferences in the admissions process, schools are compelled neither to delve deep into the pool of female applicants, nor to admit large numbers of women who are far less qualified than many men who are rejected. In this very important respect, the practical application of sex-based affirmative action bears virtually no resemblance to its race-based counterpart. The scholastic qualifications of females as a whole are largely comparable to those of males. The College Board reports that in 2002, female test-takers achieved an average score of 500 on the math SAT, a relatively modest 34 points lower than the male average. Meanwhile, the verbal SAT scores of females and males were nearly identical 502 and 507, respectively.
These differences come nowhere near the black-white disparity, which generally hovers around 200 points (on the math and verbal tests combined) in any given year. Indeed black students at most competitive colleges and elite universities have median SAT scores ranging from 180 to 230 points lower than the median of their white classmates. Moreover, the median SAT scores of black admittees are often significantly lower than the median scores of whites who are rejected. This state of affairs simply does not exist across gender lines.
Another germane fact is that girls high-school grades tend to be better than those of boys. The publication Postsecondary Education Opportunity reports that in one recent year, 65.9 percent of male college freshmen had high-school grade averages of B or better, vs. 77.9 percent of female college freshmen. A legitimate case can be made that a college admissions committee is not acting improperly by choosing a female applicant with a slightly lower SAT score and a slightly higher grade-point-average than a particular male applicant. There is no such mitigating factor in the black-white question. The respective proportions of black and white high-school students with B averages or better were 56.8 percent and 74 percent. Incidentally, Asians far outperformed both groups, with 84.3 percent achieving B averages or better.
The practice of admissions committees favoring the sons and daughters of alumni, which is a longstanding tradition at many elite schools, presents a more palpable problem. Critics of this practice rightfully point out that such legacy preferences are, like racial preferences, based not on what a student has accomplished, but rather on whose child he or she happens to be a mere accident of birth, not unlike skin color. Some go so far as to call legacy preferences racist, because contemporary white students are more likely than their black peers to have had parents or grandparents who attended college. At the University of Virginia, for instance, some 11 percent of one recent freshman class were children of alumni and over 90 percent of them were white. Even if one takes into account that there's now a generation of minority students applying [for legacy consideration], the legacy preference can reach back generations, says NAACP attorney Theodore Shaw. It will take a long time before there is any equity there. And indeed he makes a valid point.
But it must be noted that, as in the case of women and men, the academic qualifications of legacy students are generally not far below those of their non-legacy counterparts. At the University of Virginia (UV), for instance, legacies generally enter their freshman year with better high-school grades than the university's overall pool of in-state students, though not quite as good as the out-of-state students. In their 1994 book The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray report that in 1990, the average student admitted to Harvard scored 697 on the verbal SAT and 718 on the math SAT, as compared to 674 and 695 for legacy students admitted; these disparities are miniscule in comparison to those that exist between white and black admittees.
Moreover, sometimes the scales actually tip in the other direction. For example, the legacies in the current freshman class at Vermonts Middlebury College averaged 1389 on their SATs fully 33 points higher than the overall class average. The admission rate of legacies in this class was 45 percent, considerably higher than the 27 percent rate for the class overall, but much lower than the nearly 60 percent rate for blacks.
A recent Center For Equal Opportunity (CEO) study found that in 1999 at the University of Virginia (UV), the relative odds of a legacy applicant being admitted controlling for test scores, rank in his or her high-school class, legacy status, and in- or out-of-state residency was 4.3 times that of a non-legacy applicant. By comparison, the CEO reports that the relative odds ratio of black-to-white applicants controlling for test scores, high-school grades, legacy status, and residency is 111 to 1. That is, a black applicant has over a hundred times better chance of admission [to UV] compared to an equally qualified white candidate. Of all nonacademic factors, the researchers summarize, race is by far the heaviest thumb on the scale.
UV is by no means unique in this regard. In the University of Michigans (UM) admissions system which was the center of much controversy prior to the recent Supreme Court rulings, 4 points out of a potential 150 were awarded to legacies. By comparison, 3 points were given to applicants who wrote an outstanding personal essay, 5 points to men planning to pursue careers in nursing, 12 points to students scoring a perfect 1600 on the SAT, and 20 points to anyone who simply was black, Hispanic, or Native American. Statistically, the odds of a black applicant with the same credentials as a white applicant being offered admission to UM Ann Arbor was an incredible 173.7 to 1. Clearly, race was a far stronger determinant of admission than was legacy status.
In their heralded 1998 book The Shape of the River, authors William Bowen and Derek Bok staunch defenders of affirmative action note that legacies are admitted to a select group of elite American universities at twice the rate of other candidates. But when SAT scores are taken into account, the legacy benefit is overshadowed by the racial preference given. For instance, among applicants with composite SAT scores of 1100 to 1199, some 22 percent of all legacies were accepted, versus 18 percent of all white applicants and 40 percent of all black applicants. Among applicants who scored between 1200 and 1299, about 35 percent of legacies were admitted, as compared to 22 percent of non-legacy applicants and 60 percent of black applicants. We can only speculate what the admissions rate must be for black applicants who are also legacies.
Philosophically, the pro-affirmative action crowd is correct in asserting that it makes no sense for conservatives to condemn race-based preferences while quietly accepting legacy- and sex-based preferences. But lumping together these three faces of affirmative action conveniently masks the very relevant fact that the degree of preference involved in race-based affirmative action dwarfs any preference given to women and legacies. Race-based preferences have no peer in rendering all objective standards virtually irrelevant.
John Perazzo is the author of The Myths That Divide Us: How Lies Have Poisoned American Race Relations.
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This statistic could prove very misleading if the average SAT scores against which the lagatees are compared includes the scores of black admitees. In other words, if you compare the average SAT scores of all white legatees who are admitted to the average SAT scores of all white non-legatees who are admitted, then I bet the differences are quite significant.
I was thinking the same way. You have to control for race and sex when evaluating the effect of legacy. And I suppose you should control for legacy and sex when evaluating the effect of race--but that would tend to make the effect of race stronger if the legacy and sex bring the average white SAT down.
But if you reflect on it, the proportion of black students will be on the order of 10% if that's the proportion in the general population--and if legacy admittees are also only 10%, the effect of a 200 point SAT gap in blacks would be about 20 points lower overall average score, a little higher if you control for race when evaluating legacy. But 20 points is after all not insignificant--it's apparently bigger than the male-female or the legacy gap would be.
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