The University Network

7 In 10 College Students Find Legacy Admissions Unfair

For decades, U.S. colleges and universities have been giving an advantage to the children and relatives of their alumni — otherwise known as “legacy students.” But today, the vast majority of college students are against this practice.  

The concept of legacy admissions has been around since the 1920s. And it’s common practice at many of the nation’s colleges and universities. Three-quarters of the top 100 schools in the United States employ legacy preferences, and nearly all of the top 100 liberal arts colleges do. 

But in recent years, concerns have grown around the fairness of giving legacy students a leg up in admissions. 

Now, nearly seven in 10 college students (69 percent) say the legacy admissions process is not fair, according to a recent poll conducted by College Pulse. And 58 percent of legacy students agree — critiquing the very system that benefits them.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding legacy admissions is that other students suffer as a result. 

Colleges and universities can only accept so many applicants. By prioritizing legacy students in admissions, they are pushing out those who oftentimes come from less fortunate, less educated backgrounds and could greater benefit from a college degree, which commonly lead to higher paying jobs.  

So understandably, to some, the idea of giving the relatives of alumni an advantage is completely irrational. 

“It’s a complex ethical question — whether disadvantaging accidents of birth should be compensated for in the admissions process,” Evan Mandery, a Harvard graduate who teaches at John Jay College in New York, told NPR. “But 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.”

For this very reason, some of the nation’s top tier schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), refuse to consider legacy admissions. 

“We simply don’t care if your parents (or aunt, or grandfather, or third cousin) went to MIT,” Chris Peterson, an admissions officer at MIT, explains in a blog post. “In fact, one of the things most likely to elicit a gigantic facepalm is when a student namedrops some incredibly attenuated connection because they think it is going to help them get into MIT.”

However, at other leading institutions like Harvard, legacy preference is still a big deal. 

Harvard’s class of 2022 is made up of more than 36 percent legacy students, according to the Harvard Crimson. And as of 2015, legacy students were five times more likely than their non-legacy peers to be admitted to the university. 

A recent paper shows that the admissions advantage for Harvard legacies — and also recruited athletes — has grown over time. For the class of 2000, admissions rates for legacies and athletes were four times higher than their peers. And for the class of 2017, the admissions rates for these students were nine times higher. 

“It clearly adds up to the fact that [legacies’ and athletes’] relative advantage is growing over time, and the extent to which they deny admission to other deserving groups is growing over time,” Harry Holzer, Georgetown University public policy professor and economist, said in a statement

Harvard’s — and presumably most schools’ — legacy admissions policies also disproportionately favor white students. According to a court filing for a recent case that questioned if Harvard put Asian American applicants at a disadvantage, nearly 22 percent of white applicants accepted to Harvard were legacy students, compared to only 6.6 percent of accepted Asian students and 4.8 percent of accepted black students. 

Harvard has increased its efforts to admit more minority legacy students and athletes over recent years. However, the paper also found that despite the efforts, legacy admissions still resulted in reduced racial diversity at the university. 

“These are the ways in which whiteness gets privileged in college admissions, and the interesting thing to me is the way that policies like affirmative action that are designed to increase access actually get attacked, rather than the policies that are — one could argue — discriminatory towards all students of color, including Asian Americans,” Natasha Kumar Warikoo, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, said in a statement. 

Harvard and other schools with legacy admissions justify their practice in a few ways. 

Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, says legacy preference is important because it can pair people with deep Harvard roots alongside students who don’t have them, NPR reports. 

Others have suggested that multi-generational Harvard families typically pay more money in tuition, helping to keep the school tuition-free for families earning less than $150,000 a year.

There is also the theory that legacy admissions are important because they help “to cement strong bonds between the university and its alumni.” 

And finally, some schools argue that admitting legacy students helps them raise funds from alumni and donations benefit financial aid programs. 

However, this last argument has been debunked. A group of researchers found that “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”

In light of all this, some schools, including the University of Georgia, the University of California and Texas A&M have completely done away with giving advantages to legacy students. 

And in the aftermath of the college admissions scandal, which involved parents allegedly paying about $25 million, in total, to sneak their children into top-tier colleges, major changes to admissions processes across the country are being proposed. 

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill requiring California colleges and universities to report whether they give any advantage to the children of alumni or donors. While it’s still a historic move, the bill didn’t go nearly as far as intended by its original copy, which would have made giving preferential treatment to legacy students grounds for taking away state funding. 

And just a couple of months after the scandal, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), introduced legislation that would make colleges and universities establish a policy barring “consideration of family members’ donations or ability to donate as a factor in admissions.” The bill would also force schools to “report the number of applicants, admitted students and enrolled students who are the children of donors.”

Perhaps the most realistic and simple plan, however, is explained by the editorial board of The New York Times. Many college applications, including the Common Application, ask students to reveal if and where their parents received their degree. The NYT’s editorial board suggests colleges should simply stop asking applicants to disclose this information.