Last week, Harvard University's student newspaper dropped jaws and raised eyebrows when it reported a staggering portion of legacy students within its class of 2021. That number has since been revised significantly lower, but it's eye-popping all the same: A full 29.3 percent of the incoming class of 2021 has a relative who attended the university, reported the Harvard Crimson, surveying half of the class population  — a larger percentage than the three previous classes. More than one in six, or 17.5 percent, could say one or both parents attended. As MarketWatch's Jillian Berman noted, Harvard College's frequently asked questions webpage even states, under "Applying to Harvard" and "Criteria," "Among a group of similarly distinguished applicants, the daughters and sons of Harvard College alumni/ae may receive an additional look." And Harvard is certainly not alone

Daniel Golden, a senior editor a ProPublica, literally wrote the book on preferential treatment of college applicants with parents or other relatives who've attended the elite schools to which they're applying. It's called "The Price of Admission." Golden recently wrote about the "curious" Harvard acceptance of the senior adviser to President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, who is also the president's son-in-law, and Golden has a new volume, "Spy Schools," on the exploitation of American universities by the U.S. intelligence community, in the works. 

In light of the new figures from the Crimson, Golden answered some questions from International Business Times on what the prevalence of legacies at elite schools means for inequality and high-performing high schoolers whose parents didn't graduate from the Ivy League — or any university, for that matter. What follows is an interview edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

You’ve written extensively on universities’ preferences for children of alumni — particularly alumni donors — at elite American universities. Were you surprised when you saw the (corrected) nearly 30 percent figure reported by the Harvard Crimson?

I’m not stunned by it; 17.5 [percent], if that’s accurate to the whole class — I mean, there might be some bias as to who responds to this survey and who doesn’t — but if it’s accurate to the whole class, it’s a little higher than what I’m used to hearing about at Harvard.

It’s also noteworthy, by the way, that the 17.5 percent is just students who have one or more parents at Harvard College. They didn’t ask about any Harvard affiliation. They could be students who have parents who went to the Law School or the Business School or the Medical School, and [that] may not officially qualify as preference, but could well be taken into account [during the admissions process].

I think, overall, it suggests that Harvard is adhering quite vigorously to its long-time policy of giving an admissions preference to the children of its graduates. And as I argued in my book, that preference often becomes greater if the parents are particularly wealthy or philanthropic.

Maybe I’m missing something, but what is the incentive for schools to give children of alumni an “additional look,” as Harvard’s FAQ page puts it? Has it been proven that alumni parents are more likely to donate if they have a child attending? Is there some other benefit of giving students a slightly-higher chance of obtaining such a coveted opportunity partly because their parents got that opportunity?

Well, I think the primary motivation for legacy preference is financial, and that the colleges feel that the alumni will be more generous if their children are accepted. And [colleges] also fear the converse: that [alumni] will be less generous if their children are rejected. I think — it’s just a matter of common sense — if you’re a parent and you went to one college and your child is turned down by that college and goes to another college, you may divert some of your philanthropic giving to the college where your child enrolls, rather than the college that you went to, but that wouldn’t take your kid. Some alumni do get quite upset if their children aren’t admitted, if they feel they should’ve been.

That being said, as I point out in my book, I think that this is not a huge danger to universities — that alumni would get upset about their children being rejected, and particularly a school as wealthy as Harvard. If a few alumni are alienated and reduce their giving, it won’t threaten Harvard’s continued existence.

The other thing is that a university as great as Harvard, or other great schools, should be able to raise money based on the strengths of their programs, their international influence, the groundbreaking research they’re doing. I’d be more sympathetic to a university that didn’t stand out in any way, trying to leverage admissions into raising money, because they might not have much else to sort of boast about or offer. But a place like Harvard, Yale or Stanford, I mean, these are great universities that should be able to attract donors just on the basis of being associated with excellence, innovation and brilliant scholarship.

In my book, I pointed to a number of universities that have done quite well fundraising, even though they’re among the few that don’t have legacy preference. And they do it by having a distinct, unique curriculum or approach to education or quality in a certain field that attracts donors who want to be associated with high-quality work.

So do you think there’s not really a real or rational connection between the incentive to receive aid from wealthy donor alumni, at the cost of perhaps slackening admissions requirements for their kids, and declines in public funding of postsecondary education, given the relatively small sum that comes from alumni donations?

They have enormous endowments, but of course they always want more, and they would point, I’m sure, to a lot of expenses they have, like financial aid, keeping up the physical plant. Just like for-profit companies, non-profit entities, they don’t like to see any shrinkage in their assets. And to some extent their constituencies measure them by how well they’re doing and fundraising. It’s a competitive thing against other colleges, how big their endowments are. So to them, it’s another measure of excellence and so they want to stay on top of it.

With Harvard and other Ivies, we’re talking about private universities, but what about public ones?

Public universities, they’re increasingly engaging in private fundraising as well, because, as you mentioned, their budgets are squeezed in terms of appropriations. A couple of other trends to point to with the private universities is that the percentage of alumni who donate in general is going down. I wrote about this in a piece in the last year or so, that a smaller percentage of alumni are kind of small, grassroots, like, “I’ll give a few hundred bucks a year to my university.” And the rate of tuition increases has declined. Obviously, they’re still raising tuition, but not by as much in percentage terms as they might’ve done 15 years ago.

And, so, between those two things, and additional financial obligations, like more financial aid, universities are increasingly reliant on big donors — people who will give them million-dollar or multi-million-dollar gifts, and those are the kind of people who expect that in return for their generosity, their children will get a significant leg up in the admissions process.

So, in a way, the preference — both for legacies and for the development cases, the kids of rich people who didn’t go to Harvard — those preferences are probably even more ingrained today than when I wrote my book 10 years ago.

Is the disproportionate share of legacy students at elite universities blocking or pushing out lower-income, minority and maybe DACA applicants without connections, or is this zero-sum thinking? Nearly half of these legacy students, after all, come from households with incomes of $500,000 or more, the Crimson found. There’s also the argument that colleges need students from wealthier families who pay full tuition, or something close, to afford to take in students from poorer families, who can’t. What’s your take on that?

I mean, look at those Crimson data. I’m sure they show that, if you look at the monetary section, that legacies on average tend to be more affluent, and also more white, than the general student body. If you’re getting legacies, I suppose you could say that probably reduces the amount of financial aid that they have to pay out, just because legacies generally don’t need financial aid.

In terms of who’s being pushed out, that’s a very complicated question. I think, to some degree, the people probably most victimized are the very strong Asian-American candidates and white candidates who don’t have connections or a particularly large amount of money. To some degree, underrepresented minority groups, like African Americans and Hispanics — they may be pushed out as well, but they do have affirmative action as some level of their own preference. And so, if you have preference for legacies and development cases, you have preference for recruited athletes, you have preference for underrepresented minorities, now they have preference for first-generation students, whose parents didn’t, and no one in a previous generation went to college.

There are other preferences — it’s a long list. But who’s pushed out? It would seem logical to think that it’s the ones who don’t have any form of preference, which would be, often, Asian-American students who have very high grades and test scores, but they aren’t protected by affirmative action and most of them are not legacies. Some might be recruited athletes, but probably not a very high percentage. And working class, middle class kids who — a parent went to college, so they’re not first-generation, they may not be recruited athletes and a parent didn’t go to Harvard and the family’s not rich enough to make a donation. Those kinds of kids who don’t have any kind of preference are going to be the ones increasingly marginalized, when all they have to offer is an excellent academic record.

Also in danger of being squeezed out are probably kids who have tremendous potential but not necessarily a tremendous academic record because they went to a mediocre high school, or they were ill a lot of the time, or there’s a lot of mobility in the family, and I often feel that universities don’t necessarily take the time to identify those kids who have tremendous promise, but, for reasons outside their control, haven’t always been able to fulfill it, but could if given the chance.

Is it accurate to conclude, then, given the social mobility that comes with an elite university degree, that preference for legacy students exacerbates income inequality?

I certainly think it does. Legacy preference certainly contributes to any other preference I mentioned, [like] development preference. They certainly contribute to inequality in our society because they reward families that are already affluent, successful and already in a position to give their children every possible advantage, from travel to unpaid summer internships to numerous test preps and taking the SATs over and over again and so on. So, yeah, legacy preference can kind of perpetuate this kind of America-as-aristocracy.

Would you, given the choice, have this admissions criterion abolished altogether?

Yeah, I’d eliminate legacy preference.

What is the right way to address the issue, apart from the obvious choice of turning more attention to affirmative action programs and high school outreach for minorities, low-income students and—well, perhaps not so much anymore—DACA students?

To some degree, transparency always helps. The Crimson is conducting a survey and putting out the numbers, but I don’t see on Harvard’s website the data itself on the legacy percentage and the percentage of students who had one or both parents at Harvard, other relatives at Harvard. Transparency is always helpful. [The college breaks down its admitted students by region, race or ethnicity and desired major, but not by whether they have family members who’ve attended.]

I feel also that the internal admissions deliberations at many colleges don’t have a kind of recusal provision, by which I mean, let’s say that someone on the admissions staff or the dean of admissions knows the candidate’s family, or the applicant’s parents went to college with the dean of admissions or somebody on the admissions staff, and they’ve known the candidate in question for a long time. In my opinion they should recuse themselves. That familiarity gives that candidate an advantage over somebody else. Some schools have that kind of policy, but some don’t, and I think that would be beneficial.

And I think you need to establish a firewall between the development office and the admissions office, [because] it’s not just legacy preference, it’s also very rich families when their parents didn’t go to Harvard, but give to Harvard anyway or make clear that they will give to Harvard. Development preference like that should be ended as well.

And then, I think, in terms of visiting high schools — I haven’t looked at this issue in a while, but my sense is that, when the admissions officers go to high schools around the country and around the world to interview candidates, they tend to go to the lead private and public high schools and they don’t spend much time in inner-city schools, or schools where kids might have a great ability but haven’t had the chance to demonstrate it quite so much. I think opening up where they go and who they interview would be a benefit too.

If an admissions officer from an Ivy League school went to their school and met with the bright students, they could realize that it’s a reality and not a fantasy that they could go there. Those kids also suffer because they don’t have enough information about financial aid, those sorts of low-performing high schools tend not to have a lot of guidance counselors, or the counselors might have 50, 60, 100 kids that they have to work with, and so there’s not a lot of individualized attention, and so they may be in the dark about a lot of this.