As the first person in his family to go to college, John Edwards of North Carolina didn't qualify for any legacies except a job in a textile mill--and he wasn't about to let voters forget it during his presidential campaign. One of the key elements of his College for Everyone plan was an end to legacy college admissions, the practice of favoring applicants whose parents attended the same school. "Nearly 50 years after [the end to legal segregation], we still have two school systems," Edwards proclaimed, "not divided by race but by income."

Well, not exactly, at least not if you take legacy admissions as the criterion. Even at Notre Dame, generally considered to have the highest proportion of legacies of any university in the nation, they account for a little less than a quarter of students. Among the Ivies, anywhere from 10 to 15 percent is typical. But Edwards was on to something. In the same month that he gave his speech, Texas A&M, another well-known school famous for inspiring loyalty among its alumni, announced it would stop considering legacy status in admissions. The decision had been preordained a month earlier, when the university announced it would end race-based affirmative action. Leaving in place preferences for the overwhelmingly white children of alumni while denying them to minorities created what A&M president Robert Gates delicately described as a problem with "public perceptions of the fairness and equity of our process."

Clearly, where one's parents went to college has nothing to do with individual merit. But are there other reasons for giving preference to legacies? One of the few studies of legacy admissions, by Duke professor Jacob Vigdor, looked for evidence that the student body gained anything from legacies, in terms of such intangibles as "spirit" and "loyalty" as well as concrete benefits such as useful contacts with wealthier classmates. His finding: "It was all a myth."

But the practice "does have value" in fund-raising, says Julie Peterson, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Michigan inadvertently helped kick off legacy bashing as the defendant in lawsuits by white students who challenged its affirmative-action policies. The Supreme Court, in upholding the principle of affirmative action, struck down Michigan's practice of assigning a fixed point value to minority status. When the school revamped its process to conform to the court's preference for a subtler, less explicit form of preference, it did the same for legacies. Under today's "holistic" system, Peterson says, legacy is "a factor--not a large factor, but a factor." Other state schools, including Virginia and North Carolina, give out-of-state legacy applicants the same favorable treatment as residents but offer no special consideration to in-state legacies (out of deference to the taxpayers, who foot the bill).

At the University of Pennsylvania, well known among the Ivies for the gung-ho spirit of its alumni, there is a whole department, the Alumni Council on Admissions, devoted to helping legacies. Smaller schools also offer perks. At Lafayette College, admissions director Carol Rowlands reads legacy applications first, looking for students like Suzanne Ryder, whose father sang her to sleep with the alma mater. "I have a deep loyalty to the school that others might not have," says Ryder, now a senior.

The issue of legacy preferences is partly about how we see the university. Is it a public utility meant to keep the nation supplied with engineers, lawyers and toothpaste-brand managers, in which case academic potential ought to be the sole criterion for admission? Or an institution for personal growth and the transmission of cultural values, in which case it makes sense to look at the applicant--to borrow the Supreme Court's term--holistically?

Consider Notre Dame. Is the nation any worse off because the average SAT score for admitted legacies is six points lower than for other students? And it's hard to argue with Notre Dame's own assessment that the school itself benefits by keeping the loyalty of its alumni. Finally, there's the effect on students, summed up in one sentence by John Kearney, a Notre Dame junior majoring in theology and the third generation of his family to attend. "When you're a legacy," he said, "your parents visit you as often as they possibly can." He was laughing.