Legacy Preference in Admissions: Pass It Down or Shut It Down?

Explore the controversial admissions preference towards legacies from the perspective of supporters and opponents.

What is Legacy Preference?

Legacy preference is an advantage given to students whose immediate relatives (parents, grandparents, or siblings) are alumni. When used in admissions, it can grant some applicants a significant edge over others.

Research shows that legacy status nearly triples the likelihood of getting into college. Put another way, it can provide a boost equal to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT.

The advantage given to legacy applicants doesn’t sit well with everyone. According to a recent Pew survey of 6,637 Americans, 68% believe that legacy status should not be considered in admissions.

Perhaps the concern around legacy would be lower if it only took place at a handful of colleges — but that’s not the case. Three-quarters of the highest-ranking colleges in the US use legacy preferences.

Few colleges publish their legacy admissions numbers, however, the numbers that have become public are raising some major concerns. For example, documents from Harvard’s recent court hearings show a 33% admit rate for legacy students compared to an overall acceptance rate of 6%. Similarly, legacy admissions rates at Princeton are roughly four times higher than their overall acceptance rate, and two times higher at Notre Dame and Georgetown.

While these facts are prompting some people to rise in opposition to legacy preference, there are others who still support it.

Let’s take a look at some of the key arguments to understand each side of the legacy preference debate.

The Legacy Preference Debate

The controversial debate on legacy preference in admissions isn’t new. In fact, people have been criticizing it for years. What’s striking is that students of color, first-generation students, and even legacies themselves are now turning their backs on legacy despite it benefiting their children’s chances to attend elite colleges in the future.

For each supportive argument, there’s a rebuttal ready to be made. The most common claims are:

It helps improve yield

Everything from class size and program funding to student experience and in-class engagement depends on the number of students who enroll. That’s why schools are constantly trying to improve their yield rates. Supporters believe that legacy applicants have strong emotional connections to the colleges they apply to. In turn, the percentage of admitted students who actually end up enrolling increases.

Rebuttal

Legacy applicants aren’t the only ones with emotional investments to their dream schools and there are fairer ways of increasing yield rate. If a student who doesn’t have legacy preference wants to attend your school why should they be at a disadvantage based on their family?

Establishing early recruitment strategies, reaching out through five or more touchpoints, and sharing straight-forward information on financial aid are some known ways of improving yield. Schools should look at other ways to measure a student’s demonstrated interest rather than relying on legacy admits.

It fosters diversity

To achieve a diverse campus community, you must consider applicant characteristics in the admission process. Legacy is just one characteristic to consider among many others, and doing so can help identify applicants of different backgrounds. According to a deposition from a Harvard dean, legacy helps fosters diversity by mixing students with connections to the college with those who don’t.

The USA Today editorial team once argued that a federal ban on legacy preference could reduce diversity. They claimed that government interference in admissions is a slippery slope and said, “if legacy preferences are banned, so might those for minorities, athletes, tuba players or modern dancers.”

Rebuttal

Legacy preference is historically discriminatory. It originated as a way of denying Jewish students acceptance to selective colleges. Today, it continues to privilege primarily white, wealthy applicants which perpetuates inequality in higher education. Ending legacy preference could help make room for a much more diverse group of applicants who have more to gain from attending a selective college.

It helps secure donations

Charitable giving from alumni is often quite substantial and helps make scholarships, financial aid, and new buildings possible. Legacies tend to have strong connections to their alma mater and for that reason, admissions should favor their children to bolster alumni giving.

Rebuttal

Multiple studies, including an empirical analysis by Chad Coffman, have concluded that legacy preference doesn’t significantly increase total alumni giving. Coffman’s study goes further and shows how seven colleges saw “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving” after abandoning the practice.

From a financial perspective, higher education can thrive without legacy donations. Take MIT for example. Without a legacy policy, the institution collected $81.9 million in donations whereas the University of Pennslyvania, which considers legacy, raised $37.5 million.

Alternatives to Legacy Preference

The rising controversy around legacy preference has led some people to craft alternatives for a fairer admissions process. Two of which, the Full Disclosure Initiative and admissions lottery, have caught our attention:

The Full Disclosure Initiative

In February 2018, a letter calling for more transparency in college admissions began floating around campuses.

It was penned by EdMobilizer, a coalition of university groups that advocates for first-generation, low-income, and/or undocumented students. Drawing inspiration from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s True Merit report, the letter reads:

“We are specifically asking our universities to make all internally written admissions policies and data about legacy treatment public and to charge a joint committee of students, alumni, and administrators to re-evaluate its use.”

University students rallying with signs and microphones during a demonstration

It’s signed off by twelve student and alumni groups at elite colleges including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and Duke — who then began collecting signatures.

At the very least, these groups want to start a discussion.

They want colleges to be honest about their admissions policies and share how legacy preference is weighed in the process.

To date, the project has had limited success. Despite the letter and signed petitions asking for change, many institutions have yet to share their data.

Although the call for transparency seems stagnant at the time being, there are other ways to level the playing field. To give everyone a fair chance of getting into college, some suggest leaving it up to luck in an admissions lottery.

Admissions Lottery

Applying to college is an incredibly memorable experience; partly because of the excitement we feel but also the overwhelming anxiety. Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, says that the competitive nature of college admissions is extremely unhealthy and puts undue pressure on applicants.

In 2005, he wrote an article suggesting a new lottery system for college admissions based entirely on luck. This idea has since resurfaced.

Colourful lottery balls in a rotating bingo machine.

In 2016, Natasha Warikoo’s book The Diversity Bargain suggested it as a way of making admissions fairer. Two years later, the Washington Post ran a piece by a Princeton professor who suggested a lottery for the same reason.

The methodology behind each suggestion is quite similar. Essentially every applicant who meets a minimum standard would be put into a pool where they would then be drawn at random. Factors such as legacy status, race, or gender wouldn’t be considered.

Despite critiques, the lottery alternative continues to spark interest. In light of the recent elite college fraud case, Warikoo is once again vocalizing her suggestion to change the admissions process.

Others agree that it’s time. The group “New America” is calling on senators to stop research grants to colleges that don’t use a lottery system.

Although this idea may seem quite radical, it’s fascinating to see the way people are latching onto it and fighting to end to legacy preference in admissions.

Does legacy preference have a place in today’s admissions?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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