How Widespread Are Legacy Admissions?

Two in 5 students attend colleges that have some measure of selectivity and practice legacy admissions, according to one report.
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
Read Full Bio

Lead Higher Education Analyst

Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on March 20, 2024
Edited by
portrait of Alex Pasquariello
Alex Pasquariello
Read Full Bio

Managing Editor, News

Alex Pasquariello is a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Gredit: Joel Carillet / E+ / Getty Images

  • A new Brookings Institution report shows how common legacy admissions are across higher education.
  • Both private and public universities have policies favoring legacy students.
  • The likelihood of legacy preferences increases with institutional selectivity.
  • Legacy admissions have come under fire, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court banned affirmative action.

Legacy admissions are having a moment, and it's not an especially good one.

The practice has come under fire recently, making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Affording children of alumni special consideration in college admissions, especially at the nation's most selective institutions, just isn't sitting well with a growing number of people.

That's because, in theory, competition for college seats is supposed to be based on merit, not birthright. A college acceptance should be earned, not bequeathed.

It also turns out that legacy students tend to skew white and wealthy, leading some to call legacy preferences affirmative action for the rich.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned the traditional form of affirmative action, legislators want to end legacy admissions, and colleges themselves are rethinking their policies.

Virginia recently became the second state, following Colorado, to ban the practice at public colleges and universities. Similar measures are under consideration in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Only a relative handful of private schools have jettisoned legacy admissions, however. Johns Hopkins University and Amherst College did so before the SCOTUS decision, while decisions by Wesleyan University and Carleton College came after.

For the most part, legacy admissions remain alive and well at the nation's most prestigious colleges. Brown University, in fact, just announced its intent to maintain the practice, at least for the foreseeable future.

But beyond the Ivy League and similar elites, just how widespread is the practice of legacy admissions? That's what researchers at the Brookings Institution set out to discover.

Legacy Preferences Align With Selectivity

In a new report, Brookings' Sarah Reber and Gabriela Goodman reveal that the practice exists across a range of institutions, not just the most highly selective ones.

To arrive at their conclusions, the authors consulted 2019 federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data and institutional Common Data Set information from 2021-2022. That means the data predates the SCOTUS decision, which is important to note because the report details the extent to which legacy admissions and affirmative action co-existed on college campuses.

Not all colleges and universities are included in the study. It excludes institutions deemed not competitive according to Barron's, leaving only those considered less competitive and above. That eliminates community colleges, along with some four-year schools.

All told, the study examined 685 colleges and universities and determined that 375 had legacy preferences.

Within that group, 40% of students attended institutions that practiced legacy admissions, the study concluded. The proportion was significantly higher at private colleges (82%) than at public colleges (27%).

What's more, at the most selective private colleges, 86% of students attended schools that considered legacies, while at the least selective private institutions, that figure was 65%.

And among the most selective publics, 37% of students were enrolled at colleges with legacy preferences, as compared to 12% among the least selective publics.

So for both publics and privates, selectivity positively correlated with legacy preferences.

Selectivity also dictated the prevalence of affirmative action practices. At the most selective tier, 56% of students attended colleges that considered both legacy status and race, the study notes. And at the least selective tier, 84% of students attended institutions with neither.

Overall, 51% of students attended colleges and universities that considered neither legacy status nor race in admissions decisions, while 23% of students were at colleges that considered both.

Among public flagship institutions, more than 1 in 10 considered legacy status at the time of the study. What remained unclear, the authors add, is the extent to which legacy preferences affected admissions decisions. How much weight legacy status carries remains something of a mystery.

In addition, half of the flagships offered legacy-based scholarships, ranging from $500-$21,500.

Will Legacy Bans Make a Difference?

This Brookings study is both timely and enlightening. It comes as a growing number of legislators and college officials rethink the wisdom of legacy admissions, particularly in light of the SCOTUS ban on affirmative action.

The standout figure, of course, is this: 40% of students attended colleges with legacy preferences when accounting for institutions with at least some modicum of selectivity. For those who believe the legacy “problem” exists only at the top tier of American colleges, this may come as a shock.

Yes, legacy admissions do align with selectivity, so it's fair to conclude that the higher one climbs the academic food chain, the more weight legacy status carries. Among Harvard's Class of 2022, 36% were legacies.

Affirmative action once acted as a counterbalance to legacy preferences. What the Brookings data doesn't show is that 100% of schools like Harvard considered race in admissions, helping to ensure a measure of diversity to offset the relative lack of it among legacy admits.

Now that affirmative action has been banned, that countermeasure ceases to exist, exposing legacy admissions as a barrier to diversity at a time when colleges are scrambling for ways to maintain racial balance within legal parameters.

Still, banning legacy admissions isn't necessarily a panacea, the authors note.

[I]t should be understood by policymakers and university leadership that ending the practice will likely have only small effects on racial and socioeconomic diversity and would be unlikely to offset the effects of ending affirmative action at most colleges, the study concludes. Legacy admissions are just a small piece of a college admissions system that favors students from advantaged backgrounds in numerous ways.

Advocates for legacy bans assume universities will dedicate those newly opened spots to low-income and other underrepresented students, though that's not necessarily the case.

A cynical university could make a statement about their virtue by eliminating legacy preferences and find other ways to fill those very same slots with wealthy white students from New England prep schools, writer Richard Kahlenberg told The Harvard Crimson, the student paper. It's an important step — it's a symbolic step. But by itself, it's not enough.

We may never know if recent and future bans on legacy admissions result in gains for underrepresented students. At the University of Virginia, where as much as 14% of the entering class features legacies, will the state's ban result in more underserved students taking those slots that, one might assume, would otherwise be taken by students who are anything but underserved?

Among the Ivies, if Harvard bans legacies and instead fills those spots with children of Princeton alumni, are the aims of anti-legacy legislation being met?

Kahlenberg is right: Banning legacy admissions has symbolic value, especially given its racial overtones resonating against a backdrop of a suddenly race-neutral playing field.

But such moves aren't likely to result in the socioeconomic diversity gains proponents anticipate.