Rod Graham: The Case For Legacy Preference in College Admissions

Legacy students, applicants whose families attended the school, comprised 36 percent of Harvard’s class of 2022. Notably, 77% of students admitted to Harvard via legacy preference are white. These days, however, the practice of giving legacy applicants a competitive edge over their peers in college admission decisions has come under fire. Last week on Sea Change Radio, we spoke with Law Professor John Brittain, from the University of the District of Columbia, who made the case for ending legacy preference in college admissions, asserting that it preserves wealth, power, and privilege. This week, we speak to Rod Graham, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University, who offers a contrasting perspective. Graham explains why he believes that legacy preference admissions should just be considered another factor that admissions officers should be free to consider, similar to how they may weigh an applicant’s geography, race, athletic prowess, and other factors.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Rod Graham (RG) | 00:19 – So we have what looks like a meritocracy because those kids earned their way there by doing the things to get there. But the people who went to the Ivy League schools in the seventies and eighties are sending their kids to Ivy League schools now, who will then send their kids to Ivy League schools later.

Narrator | 00:38 – Legacy students, applicants whose families attended the school, comprised 36 percent of Harvard’s class of 2022. Notably, 77% of students admitted to Harvard via legacy preference are white. These days, however, the practice of giving legacy applicants a competitive edge over their peers in college admission decisions has come under fire. Last week on Sea Change Radio, we spoke with Law Professor John Brittain, from the University of the District of Columbia, who made the case for ending legacy preference in college admissions, asserting that it preserves wealth, power, and privilege. This week, we speak to Rod Graham, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University, who offers a contrasting perspective. Graham explains why he believes that legacy preference admissions should just be considered another factor that admissions officers should be free to consider, similar to how they may weigh an applicant’s geography, race, athletic prowess, and other factors.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:55 I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rod Graham. He is a sociology professor at Old Dominion University. Rod, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Rod Graham (RG) | 02:12 – Hey, Alex. It’s nice to be back.

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:14 – I’ve missed you, my friend. And I wanted to discuss a piece that you wrote on your medium site. It was entitled, why I Support Legacy Admissions in Universities Instead of Me summarizing it. Why don’t I first let you have the podium and explain the thinking behind this piece?

Rod Graham (RG) | 02:34 – Yeah, sure. Well, I, I think that institutions, uh, particularly educational institutions should have some leeway in building the student body that they think fits their mission. Um, it’s not absolute, but some leeway, right? So if it, if it is the case that, an institution says, look, you know, there are reasons why we need to have legacy admissions. I’m for that. It’s the same reason actually why I’m for affirmative action, or I think in the piece, uh, that you mentioned, the example I gave was my university, which doesn’t have to worry about legacy admissions really, uh, or affirmative action or any of those things. But we do have a large military, uh, presence in the community, and it’s in our best interest to, in effect, have preferences for, uh, military affiliate affiliated people, veterans or active or even their, their family members. And so I think it’s a good idea within reason for an institution to have military preferences, affirmative action, and then also legacy, uh, preferences.

Alex Wise (AW)  | 03:45 – So, let’s dive into the example you give with your, your university. It’s a public university, but it has military affiliation as you mentioned. So Old, Dominion, you think benefits from having legacy preference in admissions because it keeps military families going to the school. I’m trying to understand how it benefits it. 

RG | 04:06 – Okay. So unlike a college like, Harvard that would have their own reasons, we are always trying to get students. And, if we have a pool of potential students in our community, then it benefits us to try and attract those students. So if we give benefits to them in some way, and I think in the piece I mentioned that there’s indirect benefits and direct benefits, actually, I should say preferences, indirect preferences and direct preferences. So, uh, the indirect preference would be to invest resources in attracting that demographic, which we certainly do at our university, we have something akin to a DEI program, which people may find weird in this context, but it’s the same function. We want to make our university welcome to military personnel. So we have a military, I don’t know, department or something. They have counselors for military, it’s not a military department, but, but we have, uh, administrators who work directly with, uh, people who are affiliated with the military, uh, to help them in the transition. So that’s resources that we are spending. That’s an indirect preference because we don’t do that for everyone, right? Just some, right. And then a direct preference would be the, the ones that most people talk about, which is saying, okay, we’re gonna give you a bump because you have that certain characteristic. I am not entirely sure if our university does that. I think we do, but I’m not sure. 

AW | 05:30 – But you write that the school gives a preference to community college graduates.

RG | 05:35 – That’s another example. Yeah.

AW | 05:36 – Yeah. And if they decide they want to give to community college from North Carolina, then they can. But right now it’s just Virginia community volleges.

RG | 05:45 – Yeah. That’s another example of how it benefits us. We, we have a lot of, as most states do have a lot of community colleges, and we want to get those students to, if they want to come and get a four year, uh, degree, we want to make it easier for them, them, so we, we automatically accept them. If you’re from Virginia and you finish a two year, um, degree, we don’t do that for the neighboring state. So that is a kind of preference as well. And, and the point of, of bringing up those examples is because I think often the, in the national narrative, everything is driven by what occurs at like 10 schools. You know, there are 20 or so Ivy League schools, and we say, well, gosh, you know, you got to get into Harvard if you want to be a Supreme Court justice or be something like that. So everyone’s fighting to get there. And so we are concerned about, things not being meritocratic at that particular, at those collection of schools, but we have to think more broadly that these institutions, you know, we we’re trying to get students, we’re embedded in communities, you know, we’ve got a mission that we’re trying to achieve. And so we need to be able to build the cohort that we think best allows us to achieve our goals.

AW | 06:52 – We’re talking about Old Dominion being a military school and wanting to have more preferences. And I’m, and in your piece, you talk about Native American universities and Yeshiva University wanting to have more preferences, but the way I’m thinking of it is there’s a distinction between preferences and legacy admissions in terms of the goal, which I think is we share, which is trying to do away with the preservation of privilege. So how would Old Dominion benefit from specifically legacy admissions? Not just preference, let’s just think of legacy admissions. So let’s say I, I went to Old Dominion and now my daughter wants to go there. Why would it benefit your school that she has a an inside track on getting into your school? Because I went there. 

RG | 07:38 – Okay, I want to broaden it out, and then I’ll come back into Old Dominion if you don’t, if you don’t mind. Sure. The way that I think about our higher ed system is that it’s not a one size fits, fits all thing. And so different institutions with different histories in different parts of the country, different needs will benefit more or less from whatever preferences or admissions or what, what have you. So, some universities may be cash strapped or they’re trying to build, a community or whatever it is that they’re trying to do. And so they, they want to build this connection with families or something. And so maybe they say maybe someone who went to that university says, all right, you know, I went to the University of State U. or whatnot. And so now I know that my son can also go, you know, this is our university. We have some connection with that university. I can see that as a benefit to a school if they’re trying to build that kind of connection. But that wouldn’t be for all schools. Like some schools would not want to do that. So with Old, Dominion University, I’m not entirely sure we would benefit that much from legacy admissions. We benefit from military admissions maybe, but not, not legacy, right? So it all depends on the place. If you are at an Ivy League University, um, they’re not cast strapped, obviously. But you know, they have a lot of people who graduated from there who, um, could still be donors, and are donors, and you want to build that connection. Well, I went to, I went to Yale, and you know, now I’m, you know, the CEO of this company, and I want to get back to Yale, and I know my son is going to go there. I’m a Yale guy, right? So I, I can see the benefit in some institutions having legacy admissions. Now it has to be articulated. 

AW | 09:27 – Isn’t that preserving privilege then? If you are, if you’re the CEO of a company and you want your son to go there and you give a lot of money, or just like Charles Kushner gave tons of money to Harvard and Jared Kushner, who was underqualified to get into Harvard, he got to go to Harvard and then gets to claim he’s a Harvard graduate and, and is able to be among the elite in terms of his educational status. That’s a preservation of, of privilege definitionally, isn’t it?

RG | 09:55 – Well, unfortunately, in a way, yes. But think of it this way. You’ve got a cohort of let’s make a good round number 100 students, and that university says, okay, everyone has to be qualified. So, so there’s a di d distant distinction between being the most qualified and being qualified. So all, uh, even all AA students are qualified, like they meet the minimum requirements to be at the university, even if they don’t have the highest SAT scores. So I, so we got to, you know, so I, I would, I would hope that Jared Kushner at least qualified for the university he went to. Um, so, so that’s a, that’s one thing. Um, so yes, but you’ve got a hundred. So let’s say you’ve got those, that cohort of 100, you can say, alright, maybe 10% of that 10 students will accept from legacies. Another 10 students we’re going to bring in from AA and then another 10 athletes and whatnot. And then the rest will be just simply there based on their SAT scores, this, this type of thing. So I mean, I can I sort of see it in that holistic way? 

AW | 10:58 – Well, I was surprised to learn that this was a uniquely American institution. Now, I always thought of great Brittain being this blue blood aristocratic, legacy oriented educational system. But in England, France, all over Europe, this practice has been banned. There’s no legacy preference allowed in their institutions. So we think of this as the American dream, and everybody has an equal chance. But I mean, even in, in the military, let’s go back to Old Dominion. I mean, if you’re an officer who went to Old Dominion, and your son wants to go to Old Dominion, you get preference over somebody who could ultimately use the military as a real springboard to success in this country. An immigrant who goes into the military can be fast tracked for citizenship, can reap the benefits of military service, but that person may not get into Old Dominion because there’s just so many spots available. And the Supreme Court has already ruled now that affirmative action is not going to be the, the law of the land, and we won’t be able to use race as a preference in our system. But we can still perversely use wealth as a proxy for winnowing out who we want in our school if we’re an admissions officer.

RG | 12:17 – Well, you know, the example you gave, um, to me is, well, let’s say a student, you know, doesn’t get into Old Dominion University, because, um, they were one of the unlucky ones, um, who, you know, got, you know, their slot was taken, I guess we can call it that by someone who is in the military. I, that, that will of course not happen with, we we’re talking kind of, you know, just give an example here, but let’s just say… 

AW | 12:45 – Right, but you want more qualified students. You don’t want just more students. 

RG | 12:51 – Right, right. We want more qualified students. Yeah, that, that’s true. And o only some universities have this hyper competitive thing going on. It’s just like maybe the top 50 schools, most schools are like, look, um, if you have the SAT scores and you’ve got the, the grades and whatnot, um, then there’ll probably a spot be a spot for you. It’s, it’s highly unlikely, uh, that if you’re qualified, so, so that student can go somewhere else. And, and I don’t mean for that to be callous, but we have a constellation of, of institutions that you can choose from. So in, in my world, if you don’t get into Old Dominion because all right, fine. This school, for whatever reason, their mission, their history, whatnot, they tend to cater to, you know, people from Virginia and they tend to cater to military folks and whatnot. Okay, fine, I’ll go to VCU. Like, that to me would be the, I mean, that’s not ideal. Maybe the person lives in the cities. He, they, they want go to Dominion, but, but the idea is that you have, you should have options. And it’s not a cookie cutter type thing. So one school does one thing a little differently than the other.

(Music Break) | 14:02

AW | 14:41 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to sociology, professor Rod Graham. So Rod, let’s turn to another example of a conversation that I had with a high school classmate of mine. We basically agreed that legacy admissions preference is wrong, but they thought that there should be an exception for HBCUs, historically, black colleges and universities. I disagree on that because I think these slots are limited, and your preserving privilege, that term legacy almost has privilege baked right into it, doesn’t it? How do you feel about HBCUs having this option?

RG | 15:18 – I, I think if the faculty and the administrators at Harvard think that it’s in their best interest to…

AW | 15:24 – Howard.

RG | 15:25 – I’m sorry, Howard. Yes, yes, yes. because we’re talking about the HBCUs. Yeah. Yeah. Then I would be fine with that, if they can articulate why. I mean, they may say, look, all right, we want our grandfather. We want to, we, we, we want to see in our football stands, right? Um, a grandfather, a father and a son, all there with Howard jerseys on, they’ve all gone to Howard. You know, this is the Howard family, and, uh, we know that we can get, uh, money for this new, we get donations and money for this new building, whatnot, because this is the Howard family. I can totally see that. I also understand, though, that I’m in the minority here. I mean, most Americans, you know, they, uh, I, I think so I also believe in meritocracy, but I think my understanding of our higher ed system is different than other folks. And that leads me to this conclusion. And quite frankly, I don’t think, I mean, if you look at how much family income and, um, and SAT or a CT scores are related, it kind of benefits people who are wealthy to say, look, I’m in there because of merit <laugh>, because we know that that’s what’s going to happen, given the data. It’s just, you’re just going to have a bunch of rich folks at the top schools anyway, kids from rich families. 

AW | 16:40 – So Rod, I think you are ascribing a little too much faith in the admissions officers doing the right thing. While I’m a little more suspect of them, I think that they will take the old boys network and let in their friends, if given that choice. 

RG | 16:57 – They might, I would like it if, if universities could articulate the reasons and make it public to everyone to know, okay, in each cohort, this is the percentage of people that we’re accepting qualified students now that were accepted based on these things. So, okay, athletes, I mean, what’s that? I mean, I, you know, the, the slippery slope argument is too easy to make, but I mean, to be truly logically consistent, what about athletes?

AW | 17:24 – But that’s, again, that’s where you’re lumping in preference with legacy admissions. Uh, uh, that’s a whole different discussion each time. And like you ask in your own piece, you say, and as you say, as a sidebar, why do we not have any Supreme Court justices who graduated from the University of Alabama Law School? Why are they all from Yale and Harvard? That, that was my argument in the first place, is that these elite schools are the gateways to, uh, to power and wealth in our country. And to allow that to be perpetuated generationally, that’s the slippery slope. Getting to athletics, you see how that gets exploited in the USC cheating scandal and things where people carved out little false athletic achievements for their kid who wasn’t a fencer. So there’s, there’s ways of beating the system if you have money, 

RG | 18:16 – Preferences and admissions, right? We’re, we’re using two different words maybe to talk about two different things. I see the preference as leading to an admission, meaning, okay, if a qualified person is also, um, uh, an alum, a son or daughter of an alumnus, then, then they get a preference. I, I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of, okay, you went to the school, or I’m sorry, your parents went to the school. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what your grades are or whatnot, you just automatically get in. I mean, maybe that’s something that some universities do when universities that are still doing in, in some way a kind of racial preference. I guess they’re not anymore, maybe, but there’s a, a box that the person checks. I’m Native American <laugh>, I am, uh, Hispanic. I mean, to me, those, the, the legacy admissions or the, I should say the, maybe I should say familial preference, maybe that’s better familial preference and racial preference. Um, even athletic pre, I, I mean, to me, those are all mechanisms that a university does to build its cohort. 

AW | 19:18 – Except racial preference and athletics are not generationally perpetuated in terms of wealth. There’s a difference between athletics being generational and your name, just your name and who you are, your family. I mean, that seems antithetical to American values to me, is that who, who you are and what your name is, should be able to give you access to these keys of power. 

RG | 19:47 – It is, you are right.

AW | 19:49 – Great, appreciate you being against that Sea Change Radio, <laugh>. No <laugh>

RG | 19:53 – No, you’re right. I mean, I think, I think most Americans are, uh, really value meritocracy and, and they don’t want, you know, um, this sort of, your parent was a, a royal, and so now you’re a royal, and so you get to rule the world type thing. I mean, yeah, no, I agree. 

AW | 20:08 – No, we laugh, but that’s really what that comes back to. And that’s why I was surprised that England doesn’t have this in their higher education system. 

RG | 20:16 – Yeah, I wasn’t aware of that.

AW | 20:18 – No one does really.

RG | 20:19 – Well, I mean, the thing about, so there’s a, there’s a book that maybe actually the title, the person that, you had this conversation with.

AW | 20:30 – John Brittain. 

RG | 20:31 – Yes. The, the title on on your page says The Myth of Meritocracy. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Well, that’s a, a, a book that was written. Well, I mean, it’s, it’s a phrase, but, but there’s also a book that came out a couple of years ago from Michael Sandel, I think he’s a philosopher at, at Harvard. It’s called The Myth of Meritocracy. Um, and, and he kind of talks about, yeah, we all value meritocracy. Um, but pure meritocracy actually leads to this sort of situation of royals and commoners in a strange way. Because if, if you, if your family has a certain level of income, they can invest in their child who will then go to a top university, and even though they have to earn their way there, they will end up perpetuating again, um, with their kids by investing in their kids. Because the, starting in the 1970s, I, I believe this is how the story goes. It used to be that yes, you could, you could be from Aurora, Colorado or something, and the son of a shoemaker or something like that, and, and you just work hard and you end up going to, to Harvard, um, and you beat out the, the, the lazy, uh, rich kids. And, and you get into Harvard. Yes. there, there was a time when that occurred, especially between the forties and the seventies, I believe. 

AW | 21:53 – The first quotas were because there were too many Jewish students who were getting into these schools, and they didn’t want to have the children of immigrants who are succeeding on a disproportionate level. They didn’t want them to rock the boat, so to speak. 

RG | 22:08 – That’s right. That’s right. And so we went to a situation where, okay, you know what, you work hard, you can go to those top universities, and for a while that worked, but because of the competition at those top universities, it requires a lot of investment. Those, those universities were not as competitive before the seventies and eighties. So, so now we’re in a, in a situation, uh, where there’s so much competition to get into those universities, parents have to invest a lot in their children cultivating their skills and abilities and their SAT scores and their extracurriculars, all that stuff to get into those universities. So, so that son of a shoemaker is not getting into Harvard anymore, or it’s very, uh, rare. So we have what looks like a meritocracy, because those kids earned their way there by doing the things to get there. But the people who went to the Ivy League schools in the seventies and eighties are sending their kids to Ivy League schools now, who will then send their kids to Ivy League schools later. 

AW | 23:12 – It’s not like England has no stratification. I mean, that’s why I was surprised to hear that they obviously have a very, you know, they have the House of Lords right there in the name of it, right. In their, in their parliamentary system. But the people who are determining who gets into these schools are, let’s say, doing their best to try to evaluate students for what they are. They can only go by a certain set of inputs and variables, SAT scores, grades. But there’s, there’s a lot of wiggle room in all of that. But the most explicitly bald faced one that kind of has roots in a royal system is the legacy preference. That’s why I think it, it stands out from these other preferences that you’re lumping together. I think it’s different. So we’re trying to eliminate some of those variables, and I think eliminating the legacy preference could help level the playing field in a way that would be much more profound than people think. 

RG | 24:08 – We’ll see, I hope that happens.  I’m not entirely sure. I think, um, we’ll see, I mean, I’m going to remain hopeful for that.

AW | 24:18 – And it’s not going away in private universities anytime soon, unfortunately, to me, I don’t think, I mean, we’re just talking about public universities, 

RG | 24:25 – Which is also a distinction that needs to be made public versus private.

AW | 24:29 – Right. And a lot of these public schools are doing a lot to cater to out-of-state students. I saw something on like University of Arizona, whereas Arizona State, I don’t want to mix the two up, but they were building these separate apartments that were just for out-of-state students that were like, these really nice dorms. These are like way beyond what I thought of as a college dorm when I was in college. But this is because they get three, four times the tuition from an out-of-state student, as they do from an in-state student. So they’re, they’re really trying to draw students from around the country to attend and pay top dollar for the public university education that they’re offering. 

RG | 25:08 – It’s an indirect preference. It’s not a direct one, but it’s an indirect, they’re, they could have invested that money in another demographic or something else, but they chose to do that because it’s in their best interest to do so. Yeah. I actually agree with you on something. I’m lumping the preferences, all the preferences together from the institution’s point of view. Um, but, it is the case that, that it, when you give a preference to, uh, a female who’s trying to get into a STEM grad program or something, uh, which I’m sure occurs or you give a preference to Native Americans in Oklahoma or something, I don’t know if that does occur, but it really should. Um, you are helping maybe a disadvantaged demographic, either historically or by number or power or, or something. Whereas when you give a preference to, uh, someone of a wealthy family or a legacy, they don’t have a disadvantage. So from the, from the student’s point of view or even the parents, there is a difference. Uh, so that I, I, I agree with from the institution’s point of view, though, those preferences are just to me, um, um, perform the same function of building a cohort, um, or helping them financially in the case of Arizona State or what, what, whatever the reason is that they have, they have a reason for having those preferences that benefits them. So, uh, so maybe that’s a distinction we should, we should make too. 

AW | 26:34 – Yes. And, and, and you working at a public university that is struggling with trying to get full enrollment and be financially sound, I can see that informing your opinion. I respect it. I just, I don’t really see how the legacy preference specifically would aid in what Old Dominion need university really needs to succeed in, in its goals. I don’t think that’s the key. And I don’t think it would be the key to a Harvard or a Middlebury either. Ultimately, I think, I think it’s a pernicious practice which needs to be unbundled from the word preference and thought of in a separate tranche. 

RG | 27:20 – I see. Well, I mean, I, I think that most Americans actually agree with you and would find what I’m saying to be a bit, a bit odd, but, uh, <laugh>. But, but yes, I mean, most people would see, uh, legacy admissions or familial preference, um, as being something distinct from, you know, uh, racial preference. Actually, no, we don’t see that now. Actually. We see them as the same, but, but I think most people would see the di could see the distinction between those two. 

AW | 27:49 – Well, I understand your piece much better now, and I always enjoy the conversation. Rod Graham is a sociology professor at Old Dominion University. Rod, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

RG | 28:01 – Thanks for having me, Alex. 

AW | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Trombone Shorty and Alan Toussaint. To read a transcript of this show, go to to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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