New York City — Legacy college admission is a birthright advantage in which the children of a school’s alumni are given preferential treatment in the college admissions process. However, after the US Supreme Court overturned race-based admissions over the summer, attention was drawn to this already criticized practice.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, while many students from minority or low-income families are likely the first in their families to attend college, legacy students are mostly White.
Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota have discontinued legacy admissions since the Supreme Court’s decision on race-based admissions. Other universities, including Johns Hopkins University and Pomona College, made the decision even earlier.
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“It was clear that we should get rid of it,” Wesleyan President Michael Roth said on “CNN This Morning” in July. “The Supreme Court’s decision saying we shouldn’t consider the groups with which students are identified — racial groups — made it even more clear to me that it was indefensible to give preference to the children of alumni.”
How common are legacy admissions?
According to a 2022 report from the nonprofit think tank Education Reform Now, colleges are moving away from legacy admissions. Eighty-nine percent of college admissions directors opposed the use of legacy admits, and three-quarters of public colleges and universities did not offer a legacy preference at all.
The American public is also opposed to the practice. Even before the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision, the Pew Research Center found that 75% of respondents to a 2022 poll did not support legacy admissions.
Children of alumni, on the other hand, continued to have a significant advantage at the schools that upheld the practice — which happened to be America’s most elite colleges, the very group that was targeted in the Supreme Court case that overturned affirmative action.
Even though they only make up a small percentage of college graduates, alumni of elite schools go on to hold some of the most powerful positions in society.
Consider Harvard University. Assume there are two students with the highest academic credentials. One student is the child of an alumnus, while the other comes from a low-income family. EFN discovered that legacy applicants are twice as likely to be admitted to university.
CNN’s request for comment was not met with a response from Harvard.
According to Joan Casey, president of the Massachusetts-based college admissions consulting firm Educational Advocates, many Harvard legacies use the firm’s services and outperform other applicants.
“Sometimes we’ve seen students get in that are good students, but they perhaps are not as strong as some of our other applicants who don’t have that legacy connection,” Casey stated. “In that admission process, that legacy extra boost really can make a difference.”
Donations, donations, and more donations
Some colleges claim that legacy admissions help keep donors engaged financially. This money is then distributed to students in the form of financial aid.
“That financial support is essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning; indeed, it helps make financial aid policies possible that benefit the diversity and excellence of the College’s student body,” said a 2018 report of Harvard’s committee to study race-neutral alternatives, adding that removing any consideration of legacy “would diminish this vital sense of engagement and support.”
Tuition, philanthropy, and state funding for public colleges are the three main sources of funding for colleges, according to Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr.
Pomona College, a private liberal arts college in California, makes no admissions decisions based on legacy or donor status.
“Our endowment contributes over 50% of what it costs to educate a single student in a year,” Starr stated. “And that all has come from philanthropy and the vast majority of it from alumni.”
Prior to Starr’s tenure, Pomona eliminated legacy admission consideration.
“It was part of an overall effort to ‘walk the walk’ on equal opportunity for students from whatever their backgrounds were,” Starr stated.
Despite not participating in legacy admissions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicated that it had no problems with alumni fundraising.
“And I can tell you, from having sat on countless committees, that we simply don’t care if your parents (or aunt, or grandfather, or third cousin) went to MIT,” Chris Peterson, an MIT admissions officer, wrote in 2012.
Pomona has also seen no change in donations since removing legacy preferences, according to Starr.
“For every person who may be disappointed that legacy status isn’t considered there are other people who are really proud that we don’t consider legacies,” Starr stated.
Colleges claim that, aside from the financial advantages of legacy admissions, the practice fosters traditions and camaraderie.
“Dartmouth has a remarkable alumni body, in terms of who its alumni are, what they do, and their indelible connection to this campus,” said Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s dean of admissions and financial aid, to the school’s alumni magazine in 2017. “So legacy candidates are an important constituency in each applicant pool and in the way we think about the class we are shaping.”
According to the dean, children of alumni make up about 12% to 13% of each entering class.
“A legacy connection will continue to be one factor among dozens that Dartmouth considers when evaluating applicants,” the university said in a statement. “Dartmouth is grateful to have an increasingly diverse alumni body that makes for an increasingly diverse group of legacy applicants.”
Elite schools see themselves as admitting future leaders rather than just bright students.
According to Casey, the belief that legacy candidates fit in better with the school’s culture “perpetuates admitting these people you feel comfortable with from generations and generations of affluent families.”
What is the future of legacy admissions?
Because colleges receive tax breaks and donations are tax-deductible, some advocates argue that colleges must act in the public interest or risk losing those advantages.
“I don’t know if there will come a time where (colleges could) feel their tax exempt status could be threatened because people feel like they need their practices need to be more equitable,” Casey stated.
In July, the US Department of Education launched a civil rights investigation into whether Harvard University discriminates against children of wealthy donors and alumni in its admissions process.
Even if legacy admissions were abolished, many of those students would still come from a privileged background. “Whether they go to Harvard or not, they’re already on a trajectory to be successful because of personal wealth and other factors,” Casey stated.
Casey also stated that eliminating legacy admissions will not change the compositions of the nation’s most prestigious colleges overnight.
According to Starr, there are still numerous barriers to higher education for students from low-income families.
“We made a lot of decisions collectively to try to promote equal access.” “And so this was one of many,” Starr explained.