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The Truth about the Colleges’

In response to:

The Truth About the Colleges from the November 3, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to respond, however briefly, to the following paragraph in Andrew Hacker’s article “The Truth About the Colleges” [NYR, November 3, 2005]. Hacker writes:

Much is made of “legacies”—the preferment given to the sons and daughters of alumni in the admissions process. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton accept 30 to 40 percent of legacy applicants, as against 10 to 11 percent of all others. But what is seldom noticed is that between 60 and 70 percent of alumni offspring are being rejected by their parents’ alma maters. This is not a small proportion, and it counters the view that inherited privilege is becoming the rule. It tells us that most of the teenagers whose parents went to Stanford or Yale will actually end up at less highly ranked colleges. While they may not fall far, this is still downward mobility. Moreover, many who benefit from legacies do not end up with the high incomes or professional distinction of their parents. Here, as elsewhere, regression to the mean is a fact of social life. Right now, there are students at Boston College and Iowa State who will displace some of their contemporaries who started out at Dartmouth and Williams. [Emphasis mine.]

This presents a compelling but flawed—or at least yet-unsubstantiated—argument: that those not accepted as legacies will “end up at less highly ranked colleges.” Hacker fails to acknowledge cross-mobility among the elite colleges. What percent of this “rejected” 60–70 percent attends one of the other twelve schools on his “aspiring parents’ list”? For example, while at Brown (sorry—I couldn’t help it) I had classmates whose parents were multigenerational legacies at Dartmouth. Favoring Brown for political or academic reasons, perhaps these students only grudgingly applied to their parents’ alma mater—a surefire ticket to rejection there—opening the door for parents’ approval of attendance at a similarly ranked school. It would be interesting and informative to survey this “rejected” 60–70 percent and see what school they did, in fact, attend. How much of this movement would be downward mobility; how much upward? To what extent do these “privileged elite” remain among the choice twelve schools and their private-school circles? And perhaps more important, what, if any, are the implications of these patterns of movement?

Stefan Talman
New York City

Andrew Hacker replies:

It seems to me that someone who applies to and is rejected by a parent’s alma mater is not that likely to be accepted by another high-status college, where he or she doesn’t have a legacy advantage. Talman speaks of kids who “only grudgingly” apply to their dad’s school. Is he suggesting that, say, they fill out the forms sloppily and send them off (with insufficient postage?) before their parents can see them?

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