Tyler Cowen: The hypocrisy at the core of America’s elite universities

Now that congressional Democrats have relaunched an effort to ban legacy admissions at top U.S. universities, virtually everyone can count on one thing: ideological embarrassment.

Legacy admissions are part of a broader system whereby elite U.S. colleges and universities largely favor wealthy families in their admissions practices. It is possible to buy your way into those institutions — whether by being born into a legacy family that is considered likely to make a donation, or by being the child of someone who actually makes a large donation. Some 43% of white students admitted to Harvard are recruited athletes, legacies, from the “dean’s interest” list (which is often related to donations), or children of faculty and staff.

There are any number of motives behind these admissions practices. But a major one is the desire to bring in money and boost endowments.

As someone who stands to the political right of most of my fellow university faculty and administrators, I have no qualms accepting the argument that colleges and universities need to grow wealthier. That can mean tolerating various inequalities in the short run, because in the longer run academia will produce more innovation that benefits virtually everyone, including the poor.

This is not the kind of argument many on the political left find appealing. In tax policy, for example, such reasoning — the idea that short-run inequality can bring longer-run benefits — is often derided as “trickle-down economics.” And yet virtually any fan of the Ivies has to embrace this idea. The best defense of the admissions policies of America’s most prestigious universities is a right-leaning argument that they are deeply uncomfortable with.

So instead they tie themselves into knots to give the impression that they are open and egalitarian. To boost their image, minimize lawsuits and perhaps assuage their own feelings of institutional guilt, America’s top schools adopt what are known as DEI policies, to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

The “inclusion” part of that equation is hardest for them to defend. Top-tier universities accept only a small percentage of applicants — below 4% at Stanford last year, for example. How inclusive can such institutions be? Everyone knows that these schools are elitist at heart, and that they (either directly or indirectly) encourage their students and faculty to take pride at belonging to such a selective institution. Most of all, the paying parents are encouraged to be proud as well. Who exactly is being fooled here?

So the top schools have the choice of either sounding hypocritical, or defending themselves with right-leaning rhetoric. They choose hypocrisy.

Of course, that hurts their reputation. Americans may not know much about the details of the latest campus controversy at Princeton or Columbia, but they have a strong sense that these kinds of elite schools are hypocritical when it comes to their admissions practices. And this sense has only been magnified by campus conflicts and protests over the Israel-Hamas war. Again, most Americans aren’t playing close attention. But universities may have a hard time convincing the public that they are treating protesters and activists fairly because the public already believes they don’t treat applicants fairly.

Yes, there are also ideological tensions on the right. Conservatives are accustomed to attacking top universities for being too left-wing, and indeed the data support that contention. Maybe they would have a different view of elite higher education if they saw it as one of America’s leading practitioners of trickle-down economics.

Banning legacy admissions also would require a rather drastic insertion of the federal government into the business and admissions practices of private-sector universities, especially once enforcement issues are considered. (“Well, we didn’t accept you *just* because your dad went here.”) Still, I don’t expect conservative politicians to go to the mat for Yale or Dartmouth, even though the libertarian strand of Republican Party thought would suggest doing so.

As for me, I teach at a state university — George Mason University — that accepts about 90% of all applicants. If someone has a chance of succeeding, we offer them the opportunity to show that. Not all institutions can or should work this way, but mine is an inclusive university, and I am proud of that.

I thus have the luxury of opposing the new anti-legacy-admissions bill for two mutually reinforcing reasons:

First, it reflects an unjustified expansion of federal powers over higher education. Even if you are anti-legacy, or want to rein in the Ivy League, you may not be happy about how those federal powers will be used the next time around.

Second, I do not mind a world where America’s top schools practice and implicitly endorse trickle-down economics. Someone has to carry the banner forward, and perhaps someday this Trojan horse will prove decisive in intellectual battle.

In the meantime, I have my cudgel — hypocrisy among the educational elite — and I, too, can feel better about myself.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a professor of economics at George Mason University and host of the Marginal Revolution blog.

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