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Alec Brownstein

Alec Brownstein

Posted: May 4, 2007 01:02 PM

Lega-seeds


You're not Harvard material. Or maybe you are, but you just don't know it yet. Keep reading. Applications to Harvard have reached an all time high. This year, 22,955 students applied for undergraduate admission, and a mere 2,058 were accepted. Droves of high school valedictorians were turned away, as if they were shirtless and shoeless trying to eat at Denny's. Good grades and SAT scores aren't everything anymore. The admissions department could be looking for oboe players or golfers. Getting into Harvard has become a crap shoot. But it just so happens that some players have better odds at the admissions craps table than others. Like, for example, legacies. The legacy acceptance rate at Harvard for the Class of 2011 was between 34 and 35 percent, compared to just nine percent for the class as a whole -- that's the acceptance rate differential between Harvard and Vorhees College.

So do legacies have a real advantage getting into Harvard? They have an undisputable statistical advantage. But maybe there's no preferential advantage. Maybe they're just disproportionately qualified candidates. Their parents attended Harvard, so they could just be really smart. If that were the case, we would have to assume that they are nearly four times more qualified than the general populace of candidates to account for their nearly four times higher acceptance rate. But this isn't the case. The SAT scores of legacies are "virtually identical" to the general populace, according to Harvard College Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons. And he would probably know. If board scores are any indication of overall academic success, we can probably assume that legacy's grades are in the same ballpark as the regular candidates.

They're not dullards. Yale legacy George W. Bush notwithstanding, it's fair to assume that most legacies are fairly intelligent and reasonably qualified for admission. So let's assume they're indistinguishable from the average, non-legacy candidate. Their only point of differentiation is that they get to check a box on their application that puts them into a different pile in the admissions office and gives them an automatic advantage over non-legacy applicants. These legacies haven't done anything to earn this advantage...other than being born. They're members of the lucky sperm club. Which brings us to a much more interesting topic, sperm.

The Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, has dozens of advertisements in the Classified section offering top dollar for Harvard sperm donors. I suppose it makes sense. Women or couples looking for potential fathers to their children will pay a premium to get the DNA of a man who is presumably smart and talented enough to get into Harvard. But the offspring of a Harvard sperm donor is automatically inborn with something that will help get him into Harvard, something much more important than mere talent or smarts: the kid is a legacy at Harvard.

In fact, the children of Harvard sperm donors are the purest form of legacy. After all, for other applicants claiming paternal legacy at Harvard, the father is only who the mother says he is. Though the guy you've always called "Dad" went to Harvard, unbeknownst to you, your genetic father, Jim the electrician, went to Lincoln Technical Institute. That would mean you're not a Harvard legacy at all -- you're a legacy at Lincoln Tech. To get paid by a sperm bank for a donation, sperm donors are put through a rigorous screening process during which their enrollment at Harvard is verified. The sperm bank has to do this because potential buyers want quality assurance if they're going to pony up for the higher quality sperm. So the buyers may never know the true identity of their sperm donor, beyond the name Specimen B32X-6, but they can be certain that he actually went to Harvard.

So when the children of Harvard sperm donors apply to Harvard, they have the unequivocal right to apply as a legacy. But here's where it gets fun. In the classified section of the Crimson, there were also numerous ads soliciting female egg donors from Harvard. Now let's imagine a scenario in which a woman is implanted with an egg from a Harvard female and fertilized with sperm from a Harvard male. Is the resulting child a double legacy at Harvard, even if he doesn't know who his parents were or what graduating class they were in? Absolutely. They should be afforded the same advantage as any other double legacy.

The anonymity of sperm and egg donation could very well spell the downfall of the legacy advantage in college admissions. What is to keep every Harvard applicant from claiming that he is a double legacy, by way of anonymous sperm and egg donation? Sure, he was raised by a couple named Earl and Gwen who he called "Mom" and "Pop," but they weren't his actual parents. No, his actual parents were Egg 232-S, Sperm Specimen B32X-6, and a turkey baster. He's a double legacy. Short of paternity tests, there is absolutely no way for the Harvard admissions department to determine if the applicant is lying. So what would the admissions department at Harvard do if every candidate claimed legacy?

The way I see it, the admissions department would have two options. First, they could ignore all "anonymous legacies," only offering legacy status to kids who can actually name their parents. But that's unfair to the applicants who legitimately are Harvard sperm and egg donors. Are they less legacy than their counterparts? No, they're actually verifiably legacy. Plus, for all we know, they could be the brothers and sisters of the legitimate legacy applicants. Categorically ignoring all "anonymous legacies" seems pretty discriminatory to me.

The second option would be for the admissions department to give all legacy applicants the same preference, regardless of whether they're anonymous or normal legacy. But since all applicants can and should claim legacy, that would effectively destroy the advantage. If everyone says they're a legacy, who do you give the advantage to?

Opponents to the legacy system believe that it gives an unfair advantage to the most privileged pool of applicants, the wealthy white children of wealthy white alumni. Unfair advantages aside, it's a smart economic move by Harvard. As an alumnus, you're more likely to make a donation to your alma mater if they accept your kid. Harvard leans on the familial rather than economic justifications of the legacy advantage: They're not favoring wealthy white people, they're favoring their legacies...who just happen to be wealthy and white and just happen to be likely to make donations to the school. They couldn't come out and state that they're looking for wealthy kids, as that would undermine the objectiveness of their academic standards. Instead, the legacy system has served as a convenient loophole to recruit the children of the wealthy without stating that objective outright. And this system has been perpetuating itself for nearly 400 years. That's how Harvard has managed to maintain high academic integrity while accumulating a $26 billion endowment.

But it all ends now. Thanks to my ingenious plan, all applicants from this point forward can claim that they are legacy by means of anonymous sperm donation. As a result, Harvard will no longer be able to hide their donations based admissions policy behind the veil of familial relationships. They'll have to make a choice: Either state that they're looking for rich kids with rich alumni parents, which would seriously compromise Harvard's place in the world as an intellectual Mecca, or they can decide that $26 billion is enough, do away with the legacy system entirely, and truly be a meritocracy. Sadly, I believe that they'll choose the first of these two options, and just figure out a new way to veil the system. But, I wish they wouldn't. Applicants would feel a lot better thinking that they were rejected because they weren't rich enough, rather than because they weren't smart enough.

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