When Money Trumps Education: A Story of Wealth and Educational Legacy

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Higher education is about legacy. If a parent goes to a certain university, it is likely that their children will go to college. If the parent graduated from an Ivy-League or very selective institution, it is more likely that their kids will attend that institution. A 2005 study of 180,000 students who attended selective institutions that legacies chance of admissions was 20 percent higher than non-legacy students when SAT scores were held equal.

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Many universities, especially very selective institutions, have legacy policies that allow children of alumni to pass through admissions, regardless of entrance examination score. The case in point exists in front of us with Donald Trump’s family. Three of Donald Trump’s children went to the University of Pennsylvania under the legacy preference clause. We have no information on whether they would have gained admissions regardless. A more interesting case is that of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband. Jared is the son of real estate mogul Charles Kushner, who went to prison in 2005 for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. Kushner gave Donald Trump’s campaign $100,000 this year.

Here is the interesting part. The same year that Kushner’s son Jared entered Harvard University, the father gave Harvard a $2.5 million gift. When Jared applied and was admitted to the law program at NYU several years later, Charles gifted $3 million to the university.

These are the stories of two extraordinarily affluent families influencing the admissions policies of various universities by legacy and by money.

Is this appropriate?

Whether appropriate or not, this is a common courtesy bestowed upon influential alums and/or donors. Money buys access. Donald Trump has said he would revolt against lobbies and preferences as president in the White House. But he used his preference to get his kids into Wharton just like Kushner used his influence to get his sons into Harvard and NYU. It happens in many other ways, too. But most notably is legacy at these institutions.

Many institutions will argue that legacy is a good thing for the university because it creates an atmosphere of prestige and worth at an institution. Not all universities have blanket legacy rules: some give legacies extra admissions point as they might for an athlete or a musician. But there is a benefit to being legacy.

For families who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds, such as minority or low-income, there is no similar legacy. They do not get the same opportunity benefit. And legacy begets legacy, continuing potentially forever in a pyramid dynamic. One person who graduates from Harvard can extend the legacy rule to dozens of family members over generations via these rules.

Is this appropriate? From my vantage point, I understand having a legacy rule, but I also understand having a limits on the policy, such that academics and other factors remain important considerations in the admissions decision.

The “pay-to-play” schemes are more notorious and challenging. In many ways, they are akin to the illegal campaign contributions that Charles Kushner made in the 2000s. Just because someone gives to University A should not mean their child is “given” admissions into that university. This is how slippery slopes are made. If that works, then why couldn’t I give a $100,000 campaign contribution to a future president and not expect some pay back?

Right now, Charles Kushner’s son is part of Trump’s transition team. Donald Trump is asking that he receive security clearance. Pay back?

Just sayin.’ Money Trumps Education.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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