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Should Colleges Give Preference to Applicants From Wealthy Families?

Every admitted student should meet the college’s basic academic qualifications.

Q. I hear that admissions offices at some elite colleges favor the sons and daughters of rich families, in anticipation of large donations after enrollment. Do you think this is ethical?

A. No, if the rich applicant’s family has no previous connection to the school. Colleges should never solicit or accept large donations from such a family if a child is in or about to enter the admissions process—a corrupt practice revealed in Daniel Golden’s 2006 exposé, The Price of Admission.

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But an admissions preference for a qualified applicant whose alumni parents or grandparents have long supported the college as passionate volunteers and donors? That’s okay. It’s just one of many weightings given to applicants of all sorts.

In an ideal world that has never existed, admissions decisions would be based solely on factors for which the applicant is personally responsible, such as grades, test scores, demonstrated leadership, athletic or artistic talents, and a record of helping others. No weight would be given to factors over which an applicant has no personal control, such as race, sex, geography and the socio­economic circumstances of the family, whether high or low.

But for decades, colleges have gone far beyond individual traits in deciding whom to admit. To craft a well-rounded, multitalented student body that reflects the diversity of their region, if not the nation, they routinely admit applicants who might be academically less stellar (by the numbers, which are themselves not highly reliable) than the college’s typical freshman.

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Band directors and sports coaches will get the musicians and athletes they need, even if the academic bar is lowered a bit for the top recruits. Underrepresented racial minorities will be cut some slack, especially if they have shown grit in overcoming poverty. For geographic diversity, an applicant from rural North Dakota will get the nod over an academically similar (or better) candidate from Westchester County, N.Y.

All of these preferences—like the alumni donor preference—strike me as legitimate, provided that every admitted student meets the college’s basic academic qualifications.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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