At élite colleges, there was a time when a brainy boy, one from a humble or upstart family, admitted thanks to his manifest talents, gained social status and career advantage by association with his high-born classmates—the ones whose dads and granddads had gone to the school, the legacies. Now, in a time of STEM dominance and crypto-finance, a legacy kid at an élite school gains social status and career advantage by association with the smart kids. Back in the old days, the rich kids probably liked having a few smart kids from the lower classes around, or at least conceded that they were necessary. The raw bookishness of the smart kids ratified the larger enterprise that they were all participating in—it was a college, after all. But now that the aristocrats are siphoning status from the meritocrats, the social bargain is starting to look like a bad one. What are the non-legacies getting out of it? The presence on campus of posh loafers with family connections must feel like an insult to them, given their steely commitment to the college-admissions quest.
This reversal in the status exchange of élite-college attendance helps explain why Amherst College chose to end the admissions preference for legacies, and why many other top schools will surely be following suit. Amherst’s decision sends a strong message to the college’s rivals, not least because it’s been greeted with near-universal praise beyond academia. Indeed, it’s hard for most people to find a downside to ending legacy admissions. But I’ll give it a try.