Is Hard Work and Determination Enough?

By Jeppe Damberg, United World College Maastricht
September 11th, 2017

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[dropcap]S[/dropcap]econd years are in the process of applying to university. We are brushing up our personal essays, making all our extracurricular activities presentable, and engaging in furious nail biting as the SAT test date comes closer. Some students know exactly which colleges they will be applying to, others will fire a buck shot at the US hoping that a college will accept their application. No matter which category we belong to, we engage in the application process believing in merit. If we work hard enough both in and out of school, then surely colleges will acknowledge our existence and open the gates to a land of certainty – in form of a stable job at a decent wage. This equality of opportunity seems only fair, and our belief in this fairness gives us the strength to sit that extra hour correcting our Extended Essays and Internal Assessments. It is therefore a tragedy to discover that this fairness is but an ideal not found in most western societies.

Top schools now have record low admission rates, but not all students have to worry about what that means to their chances. Legacy admissions, at elite institutions especially, give a select few a distinct advantage. A couple of weeks ago, Harvard announced that the incoming class of 2021 is made of 30 percent legacy students. Legacy admission is a preference given by an institution or organization to certain applicants on the basis of their familial relationship to alumni of that institution. Last year’s applicants who had Harvard in their blood were three times more likely to get into the schools than those without. The case is the same at the top 30 schools in the U.S. This is not an accident. In fact, universities have for many years had a preference for legacies to ensure that the sons and daughters of alumnus enter the school. This preference for legacy applicants naturally outs many applicants from lower-income backgrounds, and those students arguably need more what elite schools have to offer: a great education, connections, and resources. As a result, low-income  students are vastly underrepresented at elite institutions. This way of organizing an education system, unfortunately, excludes many of those in the bottom 80 percent.

Our belief in meritocracy may encourage us to keep on aiming high, and hopefully some us will be fortunate enough to pass through the eye of the needle. But it is a reality that many bright and intelligent students, who could do very well academically at even the most demanding colleges, will be at a disadvantage to legacy students. Such an education system seems out of place in a meritocratic society, but it is nonetheless the reality. This ugly truth is one we, as soon to be applicants, have to face, and it is a reality that to this writer is incredibly discouraging.

Playing the legacy card in college admissions is obviously unfair. To stop parents doing what they believe is best for their children is difficult, but when their actions exclude many hard working but less privileged students it becomes clear that a line has to be drawn. The question we have to ask ourselves is where is this line? What is acceptable in a society that prides itself on fairness?