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Comments by YACCS

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Wednesday, March 12, 2003
Innumeracy 101, or perhaps just bad writing
Preferences given to legacies are becoming part of the affirmative action debate, but unfortunately, the debate is being distorted by bad reporting:
While minorities are admitted to Georgetown at a higher rate than the total applicant pool -- about 28 percent compared with 21 percent of all applicants -- the proportion of legacy applicants admitted is higher still, at 40 to 42 percent, Deacon said.

The numbers are similar or somewhat higher at many elite schools. Legacy students are about twice as likely to get into the University of Virginia, more than three times as likely to get into Harvard.
The problem is that none of these statistics illustrate what the reporter is using them for: the purported advantage that legacies enjoy.

Even in the absence of preferences, we'd expect to see alumni kids getting admitted at a higher rate than the pool as a whole. Alumni kids are more likely to know what it takes to get into that particular school. They're more likely to have educated parents, which means that they're more likely to have successful parents. And parental educational and financial success is an important predictor of student educational and financial success. It's impossible to separate these other factors from legacy status, given the limited statistics cited in the article.

I'm sure legacies do have an advantage, all else being equal. But if reporters aren't going to provide us with meaningful information about the advantage, then what's the point of writing the story? Of course, it's entirely possible that the reporter doesn't realize that the information provided is inadequate, which would suggest that she should spend more time in math class and less in the admissions office. Either way, it was a pretty useless article.

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