Legacy and American Universities

Legacy and American Universities

Coinciding with a number of admissions scandals around the US, I was spending some time this last weekend with my cousin at the University of Cambridge.

I was chatting with him about the admissions process and the general educational style there, and I got the sense that elite European universities seem to be much more meritocratic than their American counterparts.

And a brief Wikipedia skim seems to confirm my suspicions: Legacy admissions seems to be largely an American phenomenon.

Now, I’ve basically done no research nor collected any evidence for this, but here’s my hypothesis as to the origin of this:

In America, when we got rid of formalized aristocracy, the elites still needed a way to pass down social status to their children. However, they couldn’t do it using titles of nobility anymore. And so, they created elite universities, where they filled part of the class with the brightest students and then part of the class with their own children. Mixed them all together and gave them all the same Harvard (or Yale or etc) degree. So you can’t tell the difference!

Like I said, I’ve done very little research into this subject, and this was just my starting conjecture before starting to dive into the topic. I think to start delving into the topic, this book: The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges seems like a good starting point.

If anyone have any other good materials on the topic, please let me know in the comments!

Also, on a related note, here’s an interesting article from Elaine Ou presenting a very interesting contrary point of view on the topic!