Is It Time to End Legacy Admissions?

The practice of legacy admissions — common among elite universities — has come under increasing public scrutiny in recent years.

November 4, 2021 · Updated on November 10, 2021

Is It Time to End Legacy Admissions?
Opinion & Analysis

  • Many colleges favor children of alumni — legacies — in the admissions process.
  • Legacies most often come from white, wealthy families, undercutting diversity efforts.
  • Because of public scrutiny, some institutions have discontinued legacy admissions.
  • The future of the practice is unclear, but it will likely continue on some level.

Should children of alumni have an advantage in the college admissions process? A growing number of universities, politicians, and policy experts say no, but so far the Ivy League and most other top schools haven't abandoned the practice.

Is it time for higher education to end legacy admissions once and for all?

Amherst College Is the Latest to Drop Legacy Admissions

Recently, Amherst College, an elite liberal arts institution in Western Massachusetts, announced it would no longer consider legacy status in its admissions process. Legacies account for about 11% of each class at Amherst. At the same time, the college is expanding its financial aid program to accommodate more low- and middle-income families.

"Now is the time to end this historic program that inadvertently limits educational opportunity by granting a preference to those whose parents are graduates of the college," said Biddy Martin, Amherst's president.

Viet Nguyen must be thrilled. The 2017 Brown University graduate started Leave Your Legacy, a grassroots effort to persuade colleges to drop the practice. Through the organization's website, alumni can email their alma maters and threaten to withhold donations until the institutions abandon legacy preferences. To date, over 1,000 people have joined the cause.

"It's inherently unjust," Nguyen told Inside Higher Ed. As a first-generation student, he didn't benefit from legacy status. "It's a process based solely on lineage."

Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels bought into this idea long ago. Daniels, a Canadian, attended the University of Toronto, where legacy status doesn't matter. In 2014, five years into his presidency, Daniels decided to discontinue legacy admissions.

"Legacy preference is immobility written as policy, preserving for children the same advantages enjoyed by their parents," Daniels wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "It embodies in stark and indefensible terms inherited privilege in higher education and has compromised college and university admissions for decades. Moreover, it has drained the public trust in colleges and universities at a moment when the public is seething with rage at the seeming illusion of the meritocratic ideal and widening inequality."

Did it work? The year before changing its policy, Hopkins enrolled 8.5% legacies and 8.1% first-generation students in its entering class. In 2021, only 3.7% are legacies, and 17.8% are first-generation.

Legacy Admissions as Affirmative Action for the Rich

Legacy admissions began a century ago as a way to curb the increasing presence of Jewish students and enroll more sons of the Protestant elite. Dartmouth instituted the practice in 1922; Yale, in 1925. As late as the 1960s, legacy applicants were virtually guaranteed admission to the nation's top private colleges.

Today, while legacies aren't guaranteed admission, they certainly remain well represented on these campuses. In the Class of 2023, just over 16% of students at Stanford are legacies, as are 12% at Dartmouth, 14% at Princeton, and 12% at Yale. Twenty-two percent of the University of Pennsylvania's Class of 2025 are legacy students. At Cornell, the Class of 2022 included twice as many legacies as African American students in 2019. And at Harvard, the Class of 2022 is 36% legacies.

Between 2010 and 2015, legacy applicants at Harvard were five times more likely to gain admission than non-legacies. At Princeton, they were four times as likely in 2018, while at Stanford, they were three times as likely in 2017. At the University of Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown University, legacies are admitted at double the rate of regular applicants. In fact, in 2020, about half of legacy applicants were admitted at UVA, which encourages alumni children to apply through its Admission Liaison Program.

Moreover, legacies tend to come from wealthy, white families. At Harvard, for example, almost 70% of legacy applicants are white.

"More white students are admitted to top 10 universities under an alumni preference bonus than the total number of Black and [Latino/a] students admitted under affirmative action policies," wrote Michael Dannenberg of Education Reform Now. "Virtually no legacy student attending an elite institution is low-income."

Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation who edited a book about legacy admissions, has an especially critical view of the practice.

"Legacy preferences … are affirmative action for the rich, which heap additional advantage on the already advantaged," said Kahlenberg in an interview with Inside Higher Ed."They are unpopular and un-American."

Colorado Bans Legacy Admissions at Public Universities

They may be unpopular, but are they illegal? In Colorado they are, thanks to Governor Jared Polis.

In May 2021, Polis signed legislation barring legacy preferences at public colleges in the state.

"Providing preferential treatment to students with familial relationships to alumni of the institution is discriminatory in nature and hurts students who are undocumented, first-generation, immigrants, or underrepresented minorities and who do not have the same relationships to Colorado higher education institutions," the bill states.

Polis believes colleges should make admissions decisions based on "who you are … and what your potential is, not who your parents and grandparents are."

Outlawing legacy preferences at public institutions is a meaningful but perhaps only symbolic effort. Nationwide, only 6% of admissions directors at public colleges claimed to consider legacy status in 2018, compared to 42% of those at private schools. The University of California system, the University of Georgia, and Texas A&M University have all abandoned the practice.

Yet Amherst and Johns Hopkins aren't the only highly selective privates ignoring legacy claims. Pomona College doesn't weigh legacy status. Nor does the California Institute of Technology or rival Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which professes to be "meritocratic to its cultural core."

The Defenders of Legacy Admissions

Still, the practice of prioritizing legacy students has its advocates. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), the national organization representing college fundraisers and alumni relations professionals, defends the use of legacy preferences, which is not exactly surprising. Happy alumni are generous alumni.

The group contends legacies boost a college's yield rate (more admitted applicants accept offers) and "lessen the institution's need to make an exceptional financial offer" (perhaps owing to the wealthy status of many legacy admits). What's more, says CASE, a "legacy student's appreciation of campus lore and traditions can enrich the campus experience for all students," whatever that means. The organization also asserts that legacies represent "intergenerational ties" that "instill a deep and beneficial commitment to the institution."

This last point implies legacies tend to be more philanthropic than other alumni. However, a 2010 study found "no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities" and "no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result of abolishing legacy preferences."

Another counterargument asserts legacy admits are just as academically qualified as non-legacies, if not more so. Data from Naviance supports this claim.

"If anything, we're seeing overrepresentation of overqualified applicants," said Amy Reitz of Hobsons, parent company to Naviance, "meaning legacy applicants are more likely to be academically overqualified for the same institution their parent(s) attended than the general population."

Then there are those who say admitting wealthy legacies boosts an institution's ability to provide financial assistance to low-income students — higher education's Robin Hood effect.

"If I am sitting in the [admissions] chair, I would not be doing away with legacy, because all of my goals to admit more low-income kids would be in jeopardy," said Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

In a similar vein, Catharine B. Hill commingles legacy admissions with socioeconomic diversity, though she offers a different conclusion. President emerita at Vassar College, Hill says ending legacy admissions wouldn't increase lower-income students' likelihood of being admitted. Instead, given a college's need to admit a significant number of full-pay students, those slots would be taken by non-legacies with similar backgrounds.

"If legacy status no longer matters," she wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "an Ivy League university will simply admit the children of another Ivy's alumni."

Hill believes the focus should be on expanding opportunities for low-income students, not quibbling over legacy admissions.

"Ending legacy admissions might feel like a moral victory," Hill wrote, "but we shouldn't claim that it will address the concerns about the limited socioeconomic diversity at these elite institutions."

Predicting the Future of Legacy Admissions

Media coverage of higher education focuses considerable attention on matters of wealth, privilege, and equity in college admissions. It also spills far too much ink on the elite institutions that enroll less than 1% of the nation's undergraduates. Still, the public soaks it up, as was evident during the Varsity Blues scandal.

Today's headlines feature debates not only about legacy admissions, but also about access through the lens of affirmative action. Next spring, the Supreme Court could render its decision on Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, a suit claiming discrimination against Asian Americans. Both issues share a core element: giving some applicants preferential treatment based on variables other than measurable achievement.

Ironically, as affirmative action and other policies increase minority attendance at America's most selective institutions, the children of these minority students might not benefit from legacy status if efforts to ban the practice prevail.

Of course, a more nuanced view suggests affirmative action exists to redress centuries of discrimination, among other aims, while legacy admissions simply rewards advantage with advantage.

What will become of legacy admissions? Will more states join Colorado in banning the practice at their public institutions? Probably. Will that make a meaningful difference? Probably not.

On a broader level, the think tank New America has called on Congress to abolish legacy admissions at highly selective colleges, going so far as to propose withholding federal aid from these institutions until they abandon legacy considerations.

Such federal intervention is unlikely. Rather, individual institutions will likely follow the lead of Johns Hopkins and Amherst and decide to discontinue legacy preferences. Continued public scrutiny might tighten the thumbscrews just enough to force their hands.

Yet we'll never truly know if some legacy kids continue to receive preferential treatment despite claims to the contrary. What goes on during admissions conversations at private colleges isn't a matter of public record. If that thumb escapes the screw and lands on the scale for a legacy applicant, we're none the wiser. The same holds true for affirmative action — it can be legislated, but it cannot be completely removed as a tool in the admissions office arsenal.

A college holds dear the ability to shape a class according to its own predilections and by its own tactics. It will compromise that ability grudgingly and under its own terms, whenever possible. Legacy admissions may someday cease to exist as stated policy, but as long as people are making complex decisions about people, such prejudices are bound to persist.


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