19 February 2008

Are "Legacy" Preferences in College Admissions Unlibertarian?

For the February issue, Reason magazine's Shikha Dalmia authored a scathing condemnation of preferential treatment for "legacy" candidates at U.S. universities. While the state of higher education in the United States offers much to criticize, it isn't clear that preference for "legacy" candidates is particularly unlibertarian. Although compiling the statistics would be impossible, it is a safe bet that virtually every college, public and private, puts a legacy applicant's file at the top of the stack. And why not? Those alumni whose children later apply are more likely to have offered gratuitous financial support to their alma mater. Doesn't this leave the possibility of saving tax money in end, in the case of public schools? Of course, Dalmia is quite right in her gut feeling that such rent-seeking is unseemly. It is, in fact, only the involuntary nature of public university finance that makes such arrangements inappropriate. Yet, this problem is not one of admissions standards, but of socialism.

Consider that it just may be the case that standardized test scores are attempts to put a number on personal attributes that can't be described very well in such discrete terms. Seeing that an applicant was reared by a parent who had previously succeeded in that particular educational setting offers at least a reasonable belief that an otherwise borderline applicant may fit the mold after all. Such applicants are not only the progeny of alumni and the potential inheritors of their personal attributes, but are also more likely to be practically acquainted with what that school requires for success. They are more likely to know what it is actually like to live in that place, to sit in those chairs, and to cheer for that team. Surely a libertarian must consider that an individual's appreciation for and understanding of such factors of personal proclivity may play an important role both for the matriculating students and the school.

There is no reason to worship at the altar of centralized, standardized testing at the expense of a more basic bet on nature and nurture. Individual schools are unique entities, and it is a pretty good bet that there are widely varying schools that sit right next to each other in terms of test score and GPA statistics. More qualitative information like legacy status gives admissions officers some much-needed "real world" data with which to better make admissions selections. Finding a good fit for a particular school is more important than a one-size-fits-all, egalitarian admissions policy that has the force of law.

Rather than bailing out the Titanic, libertarians should fight to privatize public universities. Transferring control of public universities to non-profit foundations for administration and development would be one fiscally responsible escape that would allow us to avoid the socialist calculation problem altogether. Simply implementing some "more libertarian" centrally-planned admissions standard is not going to fix Socialist U. Once we move schools to a private, competitive environment, we can allow the experts in the market to experiment and devise the best admissions policies for their individual enterprises.

Because Dalmia makes the mistake of assuming that the admissions policy that is the problem, she proposes even more intervention. She says,
Private schools, of course, should be free to admit whomever they want, and it is therefore tempting to ignore their use of legacies. But there are few genuinely private schools in America anymore, thanks to the enormous amount of federal funding they accept. And setting public policy aside: Just as a matter of propriety, should there be room for legacies at institutions that market themselves as bastions of meritocracy? The use of legacies by the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons of the world dilutes the standards of excellence they pretend not merely to uphold, but to embody.
While she means these thoughts to be noble, they are not self-evidently correct or noble. Institutions that market themselves a certain way and don't satisfy can be dealt with by the market. Surely Dalmia doesn't mean to suggest educational protectionism for Harvard and Yale! Why is it a matter of justice which schools are held in highest repute? Centrally planned academic prestige is no more satisfying than any other statist intervention. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all came to exist and became prestigious in the market. Dalmia's belief that such prestige can be shored up by bureaucratic intervention in these institutions is both ill-advised as a matter of economics and historically unfounded.

(Also published at LewRockwell.com)

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