Duke sociologists recently published a study of affirmative actionnot the race-based kind, the old-fashioned kind.

“A Social Portrait of Legacies at an Elite University” (PDF) found that Duke’s legacy students have lower SAT scores, lower freshman-year grades, and pursue less challenging coursework compared to students with college-educated parents who are not Duke alumni. Sociology professor Kenneth Spencer and graduate student Nathan Martin, who wrote the study, also found that academic performance generally evens out by the time a student graduates.

A story today in Duke’s student newspaper The Chroniclewhere the words “elite university” are probably programmed as a macro on all newsroom computersquotes Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag saying “qualifications between legacy applicants and the rest of the pool are ‘virtually indistinguishable.’”

Duke is hardly alone among private colleges and universities in giving admissions preferences to the children of alumni. Endowments don’t raise themselves.

But a recent editorial in the conservative Washington Times newspaper regards the study’s conclusions as “a test for every honest affirmative-action opponent,” and says schools should change their ways.

It should not offend a conservative to admit that legacy admissions are a rebuke to the meritocratic ideal. Nor should opponents of affirmative action think that a laissez-faire approach affords logical consistency for a person who denies the race factor but approves birth. In both cases, a deserving candidate is still rejected on the margin.

What to do about it? Wash Times says government should avoid stepping in. “There is no obvious means of coaxing these schools away from what is clearly an unfair practice, without trampling on the rights of private institutions.”