What Is a Legacy Student?
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- A legacy student is someone whose parent or other family member attended the same college.
- Legacy students often receive a big boost in admissions at private universities in the U.S.
- However, many prestigious schools, such as MIT, do not consider legacy status at all.
- Legacy admissions remains a controversial practice, as it tends to benefit rich, white students.
Legacy students make up 12-14% of the incoming classes of 2023 at Princeton, Yale, and Dartmouth. At Stanford, legacy students in the class of 2023 clock in at 16%. And at Harvard, legacy admits account for a whopping 36% of the class of 2022.
Clearly, legacy students receive a big advantage in the admissions process. But what is a legacy student exactly? And just how much does being a legacy help in college admissions?
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A legacy student is someone who has a close family member, normally a parent, who attended the same college.
A legacy student is someone who has a close family member, normally a parent, who attended the same college. These applicants receive special consideration during the admissions process. At most schools, the legacy boost only counts for applicants who had at least one parent enrolled there, though some colleges may extend legacy status to grandchildren or even siblings of alumni.
Many schools use legacy status during the admissions process because they believe legacy admissions increases loyalty to the institution and therefore makes alumni more likely to donate.
Legacy students are also more likely to accept an admission offer. At Princeton, nearly 89% of legacy students enrolled, compared with 69% of all other students admitted. A higher yield (that is, the percentage of admitted applicants who agree to enroll) raises institutions' selectivity and helps schools more accurately predict the sizes of their incoming classes.
How Much Does Legacy Influence College Admissions?
At some schools, legacy status plays a large role in admissions. According to a 2011 study, legacy students "had a 45% greater chance of admission" compared to other applicants at the top 30 schools in the U.S.
Legacy students receive a major boost at elite schools like Princeton. While Princeton admitted just 5.5% of all applicants for the class of 2022, one-third of legacy applicants received an acceptance letter.
At Stanford, one of the most selective schools in the country, legacy students are three times more likely to gain admission. Similarly, at Harvard, legacy applicants are five times more likely to receive an admission offer than non-legacy applicants.
Legacy students receive a major boost at elite schools. At Stanford, legacy students are three times more likely to gain admission.
Legacy status helps in other ways, too. At Stanford, just one admissions officer looks at each non-legacy application, whereas two officers review all legacy applications. This means you get more chances to stand out if you're a legacy student.
Some public schools offer a different form of legacy preference. During the admissions process, out-of-state children of alumni can receive in-state status, which increases the chance of admission.
In 2018, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow explained why the university admits so many legacy students. "Their applications tend to be well put-together," Bacow told NPR. "They have deep knowledge of the institution. So it's a self-selected pool, which, as a group, by almost any metric, looks very, very good relative to the broader applicant pool."
Where Does Legacy Matter for College?
Legacy students do not receive a boost at every college. While the most selective schools tend to factor legacy status into the admissions process, less selective schools generally don't.
Legacy status can make a big difference at Ivy League schools and other elite institutions — but not all of them. MIT and the University of California schools, for example, do not consider legacy during admissions.
Private colleges are more likely to use legacy status than public schools.
Private colleges are more likely to use legacy status than public schools. According to a 2018 Inside Higher Ed survey, 42% of admissions directors at private schools say their institutions consider legacy status, while only 6% of directors at public schools report doing the same.
In fact, most colleges admit a majority of applicants, claims a 2019 Pew Research Center report. In 2017, only 17 schools admitted less than 10% of applicants, whereas 29 schools admitted 10-20% of applicants. Outside of highly selective schools, legacy status plays a relatively small role in gaining admission.
Legacy status also does not guarantee applicants a spot. Even at institutions like Princeton and Harvard, the majority of legacy applicants do not receive an acceptance letter.
The History of Legacy Admissions
Legacy college admissions has a controversial history. A century ago, elite schools introduced legacy status to block Jewish students from gaining admission.
In 1922, Jewish students made up 21% of Harvard's student body. The university's president, A. Lawrence Lowell, worried that white Protestants would stop applying to Harvard if the school admitted too many Jewish students. As a result, the institution created a new admissions policy that considered qualities like family background and character, ushering in the era of legacy college admissions.
In recent years, many colleges have faced scrutiny for using legacy in admissions.
That same year, Princeton implemented a legacy admissions policy to solve the school's "Jewish problem," as it was called by the chairman of the Board of Admissions. In the following years, the number of Jewish students admitted to Princeton declined sharply.
More recently, many schools have experienced pressure to end legacy student preferences. After several top public universities stopped considering race during admissions, legacy policies began to face new scrutiny.
In 2004, Texas A&M University eliminated a 4-point bonus on its 100-point admission scale for legacy students in response to widespread criticism. The University of Georgia and the University of California also terminated their legacy policies.
"If you could not provide weight for one group, on what basis could you justify giving it to another group?" one UGA administrator said in 2004.
Arguments Against Legacy Student Preferences
Today, white students make up over 90% of legacy admits. Many view legacy admissions as an exclusionary system that benefits already privileged applicants.
"There's no plausible moral claim that accidents of birth that advantage you — like being a man, or being a white man, or being a rich, white man — should give you a further advantage," argues Harvard alum Evan Mandery.
Legacy policies do not help students of color nearly as much as they do white students. Between 19% and 27% of Latino/a, Black, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students have a parent with a bachelor's degree, versus over half of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Legacy policies do not help students of color nearly as much as they do white students.
Policies that overwhelmingly benefit white students also take away spots from students of color at elite institutions. With a limited number of seats in each class, admitting high numbers of legacy students means denying admission to qualified non-legacy applicants.
Schools that use legacy status often argue that legacy applicants must meet the same high standards as other applicants. After the 2019 Varsity Blues scandal, California passed a law requiring universities to report the number of legacy students who "did not meet the institution's admission standards that apply to all applicants."
Stanford reported zero admitted legacy students who fell below standards. "If an applicant to Stanford is not highly competitive academically," Stanford's report claimed, "an existing family connection or historical giving to the university mean nothing in the process."
Despite this defense, legacy students typically report lower GPAs and standardized test scores than non-legacy students.
Higher Education Moves to End Legacy Admissions
Johns Hopkins University began phasing out legacy preference in 2009 and witnessed a significant change in its student body. Over the next decade, the number of legacy students at Johns Hopkins dropped from 12.5% to 3.5%, while the number of students eligible for the need-based Pell Grant grew from 9% to 19.1%.
David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid, says the university's admitted classes are "much more diverse, much more high achieving than [they] had been previously."
Other elite institutions have made similar moves in recent years, causing the number of colleges that use legacy in admissions to decline. In 2004, 63% of the country's top 250 schools provided a boost to legacy students. By 2020, that number had dropped to 56%.
The number of colleges that use legacy in admissions is declining. In 2004, 63% of the country’s top 250 schools provided a boost to legacy students. By 2020, that number had dropped to 56%.
Will legacy admissions ever end? With more than half of top U.S. colleges and universities still relying on legacy admissions, the system will likely persist for now. But the long term looks a lot different.
Sixty-nine percent of college students say legacy college admissions isn't fair — including 58% of legacy students themselves — and only a small fraction of students want their future children to receive admission preference.
Eventually, the days of legacy student preference will come to an end — and most students will be happy it did.