Bush to review nepotistic entry

September 3, 2004

President George W. Bush has called for an end to the kind of preference in American university admission widely believed to have benefited him and other well-connected students.

So-called legacy admission, which is closely linked to the wider questions of race and class in US society, has emerged as an unlikely issue in the presidential election campaign, showing how emotional Americans can become about fairness in the processes that universities apply in accepting or rejecting their children.

John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, has promised to outlaw such preferences outright.

"The legacy preference rewards students who had the most advantages to begin with," Senator Edwards said at a campaign appearance. He added:

"That's an old barrier of the past, and it needs to be knocked down for good."

President Bush was speaking to a convention of non-white journalists when he unexpectedly declared that university admission "ought to be based on merit".

Racial minorities, in particular, have focused on the legacy admissions issue since the Bush Administration weighed in on an important case that weakened affirmative action in admission based on race.

The President went to Yale, like his father, in spite of gaining mediocre grades in secondary school. One of his daughters, Barbara, was also admitted to Yale.

Most universities are trying to stay out of the debate. The primary reason for the schools to defend the status quo is that alumni wield significant financial power over them: studies have shown that alumni whose children are accepted give significantly more.

Many private universities have high percentages of alumni children among their student bodies. For example, nearly a quarter of those studying at Notre Dame University are children of alumni. Harvard University accepts 40 per cent of its so-called legacy applicants, far higher than the proportion of other students who apply.

But where the issue has hit hardest is with taxpayer-supported public universities that practise legacy admissions.

Only one has dropped the policy so far. Texas A&M University - in Mr Bush's home state - had come under particular criticism from minority activists after a newspaper reported that 300 white applicants had been admitted mainly on the basis that they were related to alumni.

Robert Gates, the school's president, says in a statement that "public perceptions of the fairness and equity of our process clearly are important".

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