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Duke needs to end legacy admissions

Based on Duke’s response to the Supreme Court’s recent overturn of race-based Affirmative Action, it’s clear that our admissions department doesn’t like being told whom they should admit. While Duke did not go so far as to eschew the decision, President Price responded in a university-wide email to reaffirm a commitment to racial diversity. However, race-based boosts aren’t the only ways students receive advantages in the admissions process, and regardless of what we think about the court decision, it calls strongly into question the other ways in which the playing field is by no means level.

The sweet story the administration wants to paint about admissions is that all decisions are made to strengthen the “Duke family.” Price has said, “The idea that you would ban legacy admissions, or ban any particular factor as a consideration, is troublesome.” We’ve also seen the new policy of providing free tuition to eligible Carolina families as a “commitment” to our “home.” Strangely, there is no corresponding commitment to admitting a larger number of students from these states or that economic sweet spot of those from middle-class families who make too much to come for free but don’t make anywhere near enough to be full pay. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that Duke no longer seems to use the language of “need-blind” admissions that was advertised when I was applying.

Based on a study reported by The New York Times, this “donut hole” group also gets the short end of the stick come admissions time. As the median salary ten years out from Duke appears to be over $130,000, potential legacy admits are likely in the financial group with a 2.2x greater likelihood of being admitted than less wealthy students when controlling for test scores. Clearly, students on the upper rungs of the US socioeconomic ladder already have the advantages that wealth gives them — better schools, paid test preparation, familial connections, etc. So why not reward them further for doing just what we expect them to do with the resources that make it easy to do so?

If I have children — and yes, mom, that’s an if, not a when — I don’t want them riding my coattails to be successful. Further, I don’t want them to feel like it’s Duke or nothing — I didn’t work this hard to give my kids a life where going to an elite college and being either a banker or an engineer or a consultant is the only “respectable” path.

That’s not to say I see providing advantages where advantages are due as a bad thing. Indeed, I believe colleges should most certainly consider the context from which an applicant applies. This is a more complicated issue than race, and there’s certainly not some simple formula for computing disadvantage — though this would make the comparisons we love to make so much easier.

Duke is an elite American college and thus must be politically correct 100% of the time; this professed commitment to diversity is directly at odds with the latent goal of perpetuating the university in its intended form. In many ways, perfect diversity belies the notion of a cohesive culture, and upholding the status quo vis-à-vis who is admitted clearly wins out. It’s like when your wealthy friends say they’re socialists — when praxis never has to be realized, it’s much easier to live in a fantasy world of moral righteousness.

Legacy admissions would seem a rather sweet deal for those who are let into the gilded bubble and perpetuate the norm — keyword: seem. Beyond being surrounded by people who think the same way you do and don’t challenge you to rethink your preconceptions, it limits your possibilities in life. Perhaps you’ve felt a bit restricted by the six or so acceptable options for a future career. This didn’t start in college — at every stage of life, your current situation gives you choices that have both a statistical and a perceived likelihood based on sociocultural influences. If your parents went to Duke, you see Duke as a likely option, whereas if you went to a high school where no one has ever been to Duke and your parents went somewhere local or not at all, it’s neither viable nor a given.

I remember my high school guidance counselor telling my class that Ohio State was our reach school — it was difficult to get into because the in-state admissions rate was only 40 or 50%. Where I grew up, the “respectable” options for the “advanced student” are teaching or nursing, or maybe engineering if you’re really smart — but it’s just as likely you’ll become a cosmetologist or a secretary or work in retail for your whole life. It’s insane how different my viable options have become due to somehow succeeding in obtaining the incredibly unlikely option of attending a top-ten university from a rural public school where only a third of students graduate from college within six years of finishing high school. That’s the Duke difference, and it’s night and day.

A lot of people are going to succeed or fail by society’s standards regardless of their context. That by no means makes context irrelevant. Many of the people here come from the same handful of well-regarded high schools — TJ, Hunter, you get the jist. It doesn’t matter if you get onto the elite educational track in preschool or in grad school — once you reach a certain sort of name value, doors don’t just open; they appear out of thin air. And once you experience that, it’s tough to accept anything less than what you feel you’re owed.

My reasonable options after graduation are mind-boggling; the “reach” options are almost impossible to believe — but they’re also incredibly limiting. I couldn’t just choose to be a carpenter or a baker or a kindergarten teacher now — I could, but you and I both know I couldn’t. But no one dreams of downward mobility, even though it has to happen if others move up in the world. 

However it happened, we’re all here now — that doesn't mean that the best thing for the world is maintaining the status quo. Multiple well-regarded colleges have recently ended legacy admissions. As they say, Duke has a unique opportunity to set the mark amongst its peer institutions. As we know from the whole price-fixing debacle, many of these unfair practices at elite institutions are held up by mutual culpability. If real change isn’t an option, let’s at least drop the facade of caring so much about diversity and preach what we practice. Unlike real families, Duke does get to choose who is given a place in it.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column will run on alternating Tuesdays.


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