Why do colleges use legacy admissions? 5 questions answered
Nadirah Farah Foley, New York University
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Legacy admissions – a practice in which colleges give special consideration to children of alumni when deciding who to admit – have been making headlines. Colleges are increasingly being called on to rethink the merits of the practice – and some colleges are beginning to heed those calls. Here, Nadirah Farah Foley, a postdoctoral associate at New York University, answers five questions about the elitist history of legacy admissions and their uncertain future.
1. How long have legacy admissions been around?
At the time, Ivy League universities were preoccupied with preserving their status as bastions of the elite. Harvard, for example, had long been the university of choice for Boston’s upper class. But as students from other backgrounds — especially Jews — began to gain admission, Harvard and other elite universities sought to keep “social undesirables” to a minimum on campus, according to sociologist Jerome Karabel.
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As Karabel revealed in his 2006 book “The Chosen,” by the 1930s, nearly a third of Yale undergraduates were the children of people who themselves had graduated from Yale. This was no accident: Yale’s dean of admissions at the time, James Noyes, wrote in a confidential memo that “the [admissions] Board gives all possible preference to the sons of Yale men.”
Princeton made its preference for legacies even more explicit – and public. A 1958 alumni brochure stated: “No matter how many other boys apply, the Princeton son is judged on this one question: can he be expected to graduate? If so, he’s admitted.”
2. Why are legacy admissions problematic?
Legacy admissions are frequently debated because they represent a glaring contradiction in American higher education. On the one hand, prestigious universities say they are committed to admitting the “best and brightest.” On the other hand, these same universities uphold a preference for the children of alumni — a practice that disproportionately benefits wealthy, white students and is patently not about merit. Admitting an inordinately high percentage of children of privilege raises this question: Do universities really want the best and brightest? Or do they want the richest and whitest?
3. Couldn’t legacy admissions eventually help historically underrepresented groups?
So on a small scale, preserving legacy admissions could benefit applicants of color who are children of alumni. But at Princeton, where more than half of admitted students were people of color in 2019, just 27% of legacy admits were students of color. The point is, even as universities like Princeton diversify, legacy admissions may continue to skew super white.
It’s also worth remembering that non-white graduates of Harvard and similar institutions — and therefore their children — represent a tiny fraction of people of color. Undergraduate classes at Harvard average around 1,600 students. So even with admitted classes that are over 15% Black, Harvard College graduates at most a few hundred Black students each year.
Giving an additional boost to the children of alumni, even if they are people of color, does little to move the needle on racial equity. Instead, it serves to reproduce an elite – and even a racially diverse elite is still an elite, which can only exist so long as stark inequalities do.
4. Are colleges responding to calls to end legacy admissions?
In recent years, a few high-profile universities – including Johns Hopkins University and all public colleges and universities in Colorado – have ended legacy admissions. In October 2021, Amherst College ended legacy admissions as well.
These universities joined a small list of selective schools without legacy preferences. The list includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, which never considered legacy status, and the University of California system, which has not considered legacy status since the 1990s.
But while the percentage of the top 250 U.S. universities that use legacy admissions is down to 56% – from 63% in 2004 – many selective universities still consider legacy status.
5. Is there any reason to keep legacy admissions?
Elite universities often say legacy admissions are necessary to keep alumni donations high. Harvard College’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, has repeatedly defended Harvard’s preferential treatment of the children of alumni and donors. In a deposition for an affirmative action lawsuit filed against Harvard, he said that legacy preferences were “essential to Harvard’s well-being.” At trial, Fitzsimmons elaborated, “It is important for the long-term strength of the institution to have the resources we need.”
Research, however, has found no correlation between legacy preferences and university revenues. Another study indicated legacy admissions policies have little to no effect on alumni giving.
Some defenders of legacy admissions now offer a different justification: the contributions legacy students make to the campus community. Brown University’s dean of admissions, Logan Powell, highlighted the fact that legacy admissions are very involved in mentoring and internship experiences for current students. Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, has also highlighted the contributions that children of alumni make on campus. He asserted that it was valuable to have students who “have more experience with Harvard” alongside “others who are less familiar.”
This use of diversity to defend legacy admissions is notable. Diversity is usually mentioned in defense of affirmative action – a policy that supports the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups. But now, some universities seem poised to use “diversity” in defense of legacy admissions, which furthers the status quo and keeps generation after generation of elites on campus.
After a century of legacy admissions, there is abundant evidence that wealthy white alumni and their children are the most likely to benefit. There is also little evidence showing why such policies should continue. But legacy admissions are mostly an issue for a small number of selective universities, and a small portion — often between 10% to 15% — of their total admissions at that.
Doing away with legacy admissions won’t fix an admissions game tilted toward the children of privilege. But as universities profess their commitment to diversity, heeding calls from alumni to abandon legacy preferences could be one small step toward making sure all applicants get a fairer shake.
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Nadirah Farah Foley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.