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Author of viral op-ed: The way you're getting your kids into college may be 'cheating'

Upper-middle-class American children get every advantage, from high-quality school districts to safe, clean streets on which to play, says Richard V. Reeves, author of the new book "Dream Hoarders" and a senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute.

They don't also need the boost given by legacy admissions to ensure that they get coveted seats at the country's most elite colleges.

"To operate a hereditary principle in college admissions," he tells CNBC, is unfair. Especially for a country that fancies itself to be a meritocracy. To put it bluntly, he says, all the different ways upper-middle-class parents elbow competitors out of the way to get their kids into the best colleges amounts to "cheating."

"I think it's time we stopped, and maybe that means you need to stop," he says.

Reeves went to Oxford, but, he says, that "didn't help my son get into Oxford, and he didn't get in, and it would have been seen as preposterously unfair if it had. So we might have a hereditary monarchy, but, by the way, [the members of that monarchy] don't get to go to Oxford and Cambridge anymore either because they don't get good enough grades."

That kind of preference for legacy admissions in the U.K. "disappeared in the twentieth century," he says.

It is, however, still very much alive in the U.S. And that matters a great deal, because access to elite universities is one of the primary ways the upper-middle class and upper class pass on their advantages. Reeves writes in "Dream Hoarders" that, in America, "the children and grandchildren of wealthy people end up wealthy themselves, but largely by getting a better education than through direct inheritance: because of B.A.s rather than bequests."

The legacy advantage is even more sizable than you might imagine. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported back in 2011, based on research from Harvard, "legacy applicants got a 23.3-percentage-point increase in their probability of admission. If the applicants' connection was a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, a 'primary legacy,' the increase was 45.1-percentage points."

Overall, according to the Chronicle, "if a non-legacy applicant faced a 15 percent chance of admission, an identical applicant who was a primary legacy would have a 60 percent chance of getting in."

Richard V. Reeves.
Richard V. Reeves.

Plenty of experts agree with Reeves that the status quo is unfair. Jeffrey J. Selingo at The Washington Post wrote earlier this year that "the easiest way for elite universities to bridge the growing economic divide on their campuses and have their student bodies look like the rest of America is to eliminate legacy admissions."

And in Op-Ed for The New York Times titled "End College Legacy Preferences," Evan J. Mandery writes, "a Princeton team found the advantage to be worth the equivalent of 160 additional points on an applicant's SAT, nearly as much as being a star athlete or African-American or Hispanic.

"At Harvard, my alma mater, the legacy acceptance rate is 30 percent, which is not an unusual number at elite colleges. That's roughly five times the overall rate."

That's partly the reason why "the majority of top quintile families attend a selective or elite college," Reeves writes in "Dream Hoarders." The undergraduate populations at those schools are strikingly homogeneous. "About half of the students at the most selective colleges — around 480 institutions — come from the upper-middle class. The more selective the college, the greater its dominance," he writes.

Chart reprinted with permission from Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

Legacy preferences help the top 20 percent of Americans calcify the class system in America, argues Reeves. "Right now, the way we organize our education system, the way we organize our schools, our housing market and our colleges excludes many of those in the bottom 80 percent," he says.

Reeves suggests parents ask ourselves, "What's acceptable in a society that prides itself on fairness?" Especially given that, as he tells CNBC, "if you have a society where the upper-middle class perpetuates itself one generation to the next, you cease to be America."

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