October 19, 2012 5:03 pm

The price of admission

While public universities face cuts in state funding, many private institutions drown in alumni donations
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of Yale, Harvard and dollar pennants©Shonagh Rae

Almost three decades ago, I applied to Cambridge university in England for an undergraduate degree. Just before my interview, a schoolteacher proffered some advice: “Don’t mention that your father went to Cambridge – or not unless you are asked!”

The reason? Back then in 1980s Britain, there was an aversion to the idea that family connections could help students get an elite university place. Indeed, the only thing considered more taboo by admissions officers was the idea that somebody could “buy” their way into a university with charitable donations, coupled with family ties.

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Gillian Tett

How times change. Or, more accurately, how perceptions vary according to geography and social customs. This autumn, the children of several American friends entered a clutch of elite US colleges, such as Brown, Harvard and Princeton. Most of these kids have earned their places, in the sense of having high-performing SAT tests and a curriculum vitae packed with accolades. And yet these intelligent teenagers had another advantage: connections. More specifically, their parents and relatives are usually alumni of those elite universities, visibly involved in the alumni network and have often made philanthropic donations.

To be sure, those parents usually do not want to stress this aspect of their kids’ lives: it would be rude to ever discuss the “price” of securing a spot (ie, how much philanthropy or alumni involvement is required). But there is no shame incurred by the practice either. On the contrary, when I relate my Cambridge tale it provokes astonishment. This is little wonder, perhaps, when educational researchers estimate that at 15 per cent or more of students at some top Ivy League universities are “legacy” kids – and having a family link increases a mid-level student’s chance of entry by about 60 per cent.

“It is just how the system works,” says a friend in Washington, a prominent Harvard alumnus who proudly helped get his nephew to Harvard this year. “My nephew is incredibly bright – he deserves to be there. But the problem is that there are lots of other bright kids, so I did everything I could.” Or as Lawrence Summers, former Harvard University president, has observed, “legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is” – or they are in the eyes of Ivy League leaders and some private liberal arts colleges.

Don’t get me wrong: in telling this story I am emphatically not suggesting that Britain’s educational system is a paragon of effectiveness or meritocracy. There is hypocrisy aplenty in those British norms. With or without legacies, most students at Oxford or Cambridge come from privileged backgrounds. And there is a practical problem too: precisely because institutions such as Cambridge will not sell places for philanthropy, they are cash-strapped compared with the likes of Harvard.

But while the American cultural standards are arguably more honest – and far more commercially effective – they carry potentially debilitating consequences. And what I find truly striking is just how little this system is openly discussed, particularly compared to the whole issue of positive discrimination (or the idea of awarding places proactively on the basis of race, say, which has sparked a storm of discussion in America in recent days). One problem of the legacy system is that it entrenches privilege. It also gives the student body of the Ivy League a bifurcated, if not caste feel. For while a commendably large chunk of students at Ivy League schools study on scholarships, there are relatively few children from “middle” families – those too wealthy to qualify for aid but not wealthy and elite enough to pull strings.

More damaging still, the legacy system contributes to bifurcation in the education world. These days, many private Ivy League institutions are drowning in funds because of those alumni donations. Indeed, fundraising is usually cited as a key benefit of that legacy system. But while Harvard, say, has plenty of largesse, much of America’s publicly funded higher education system is being crushed.

Over in California, for example, the public universities that cluster around Berkeley are currently facing “draconian” cuts, as Nathan Brostrom, executive vice-president, says. Indeed, they have already lost a third of their state aid in the past five years.

But it is tough for Berkeley to replace that state money since the colleges do not practise a legacy policy at all: instead, Brostrom says that 40 per cent of students come from low-income families (compared with 10 per cent at Ivy League institutions).

And the State University of New York, which runs a vast network of public community colleges and universities, has had “its state tax support reduced by $1.4bn, or 30 per cent” in the past four years, says Nancy Zimpher, its chancellor. That cuts the New York state share of SUNY’s budget from 34.1 per cent to 26.9 per cent. Zimpher is working with the state to create more stability, and is trying to replace this with private money. But that “is tough”, since SUNY has no legacy policy and no real tradition of raising private funds. After all, hedge fund managers are unlikely to give millions to a community college to secure a place for their children. Their largesse typically either goes to their alma mater or to fund a school for poor, photogenic, little kids.

This is a tragedy. After all, what happens (or does not happen) at a place such as SUNY is crucial for future American growth. Or to put it another way, if America is going to stay competitive and cohesive, it desperately needs to create decent higher education for a wide swath of its population – and not just for an elite that is becoming adept at reproducing privilege across generations, under the banner of donations.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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