Legacy College Admissions Are a Testament to What is Legacy Culture

I have been witnessing it for my entire adulthood and it’s a scenario that plays out well for major media which likes to pretend that  George W. Bush is an anomaly for having attended both Yale (undergrad) and Harvard (business school) simply because his father attended these very same institutions. When The New Yorker got hold of Bush’s Yale records, it not only uncovered that he scored a 566 on the verbal SAT and a 640 on  the math SAT, far below the median score for his Yale classmates, but many Americans reading the journalism on this story were led to believe that this case is isolated to one anomaly.  The problem is that legacy college admissions are not only symptomatic of the problems within American academia, but they are a symbol of our culture and the myth that one can work and study one’s way from one class to another.

Earlier this week, The New York Times’ editorial board published an indictment of legacy admissions while still managing to skirt around the larger issues of class inequality in public education. Remove legacy admissions and the most recent cheating scandal and we are still left with a system that rewards those from the most affluent of backgrounds where the required SAT scores are not dependent upon anything other than a specific zip code or private school access.  And this is still an afterthought to which individuals can possibly afford the tuitions of either university which currently stand at $47,730 (Harvard) and $55,500 (Yale).

The question the media is not tackling is how the tuition model perpetuates business as usual within class politics and how legacy admissions are built into the pre-university structure whereby the most mediocre of applicants are granted access to what are considered “top tier” institutions. And the recent case of Michael Wang throws a unique dimension into the discussion where arguments of discrimination based on ethnicity don’t entirely hold up to the test of proof where it concerns Asian Americans even if Asian Americans face far worse retirement prospects than white Americans. Antithetically, the paucity of placements of students from outside the upper classes is well-documented with less than 5 percent of students attending Ivy League and other elite colleges coming from families in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution in the US. In fact, a 2010 report shows that 14 percent of elite university students come from the 1 percent. So the problem with legacy admissions is really a drop in the bucket to real class issues plaguing higher education in American universities.

We already know that the evaluative measures for acceptance into undergraduate programs is greatly flawed with the majority of college admissions leaders stating in a survey that they do not “value the writing tests on either the SAT or the ACT” tests while also confirming that there are better modalities for evaluating the writing skills of applicants. And we know that students who take part in private courses such as “college readiness” courses or MBA admission consulting fare better on program admissions. So, isn’t this entire system of university education more a reflection about the values we invest into capitalist structures more than any kind of qualitative value we effect as a society?

But there’s the flip side that colleges should be firmly worried about: the increasing number of high school students who are opting out of university education, fully aware that getting an undergraduate degree is a one-way ticket to a lifetime of debt and likely will offer no better job prospects than had one simply entered the job market without a degree. And the proof of this is today more apparent than ever as tech companies are hiring more people without degrees with approximately ten to fifteen percent of IBM’s new hires not possessing the traditional four-year degree. What is translating into a sustainable and alternative model to university education is looking at the many entrepreneurs who have no college education and who have followed the startup model for entering the workforce where the cannabis market and the sale of products like CBD oil are flourishing. Where legacy admissions are ostensibly supposed to give the already wealthy elite a foot in the door, there is a new generation of pot-smoking and teenage programmers who are able to tilt the scales of power.

And there is an irony in this where universities are upscaling course offerings to include courses on cannabis in order to prepare graduates for jobs in this sector. Meanwhile, loads of startups have been launched by many college dropouts or those who simply chose not to go to university and the media is picking up on the vast job opportunities in the cannabis sector irrespective of education. In Canada alone, the cannabis industry has almost quadrupled in the past year, according to Statistics Canada which released its annual profile of federally-licensed cannabis producers last month. It reported that there are 9,200 people currently working in the Canadian cannabis sector, increased from 2,630 in 2018 year with about 80 per cent of those cannabis industry were working cultivation, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, administration duties, packaging, marketing, and sales.Where the younger generation is making inroads with startups despite the lack of university education, there are options in many sectors that not only don’t require a university education, but others which actually prefer it that way.

Ultimately, we need to question why we even hold Ivy League institutions up as desirable in the first place since—and I am suggesting this as a counter-measure—that parents stop pushing their children towards such institutions and instead start to think through the class politics that they are affirming no matter how they attend such institutions. We need to rethink the educational model and even start to resist it as many high school graduates are already doing in making good on an entrepreneurial spirit.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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