Legacy admissions: rooted in inequality

Should college admissions be based on merit or circumstance? Now that the Supreme Court has ended affirmative action, a practice meant to ensure equal opportunities for all, it makes no sense to allow a true injustice in college admissions to linger: legacy admissions.  

Legacy admissions refer to the increased chance of admission that children of alumni experience when they apply to their parent’s alma mater. This is not the first time that the end of affirmative action has elicited calls for legacy admissions to be banned. In 1996, the University of California system decided to ban affirmative action and banned legacy admissions shortly after. 

Since the Supreme Court ruling, President Biden announced that he directed the Department of Education to look into “practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity,” according to the White House briefing room. Additionally, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York recently introduced a bill that would ban all universities from practicing legacy admissions. 

The very history of legacy admissions is rooted in prejudice. Before the 1900s, universities were dominated by wealthy, white, Protestant men. However, that changed as more Catholic and Jewish people immigrated to America. Many Americans who believed the myth that Jewish people lacked moral character were alarmed by the increase in Jewish enrollment. 

In the 1920s, Yale’s admissions chairman Robert Nelson Corwin claimed that Jewish students’ “morals and manners” were inferior to white students. He believed attending college didn’t help them improve these supposed flaws, and consequently proposed that Yale curb the admittance of Jewish students. Many people agreed with Corwin, and several policies were implemented to lower the enrollment of Jewish students and increase the enrollment of Protestant students. Legacy admissions was one of those policies.

Despite the inexcusable beginnings of legacy admissions, the practice continues at many colleges. According to a study by Inside Higher Ed, 42 percent of private colleges and universities practice legacy admissions, including almost all Ivy League universities. Legacy admissions provide a significant boost for the descendants of alums. In 2007, a study of 30 very selective colleges by Michael Hurwitz found that legacy applicants were three times more likely to be admitted than equally qualified non-legacy applicants.  According to the Harvard Crimson, 36 percent of Harvard’s Class of 2022 are legacy students.

If a student’s parent went to Harvard, chances are they grew up privileged. According to a study by the Harvard Crimson, for the class of 2019, 40.7 percent of legacy respondents had parents who earn more than 500 thousand dollars. These students had access to tutors, college counselors, and probably the connections necessary to receive prestigious internships and other opportunities. Their background already gives them a leg up in the admissions process; they don’t need another advantage simply because they were born to alumni.

Saskia Freedberg, a senior at Berkeley High School, spoke about what she believed the negative impacts of legacy admissions are. “Someone who’s potentially less qualified (may get accepted.) That doesn’t mean that they’re a bad student, but if the reason they’re going to a college is because their parents had enough money to afford (also going to) that college, then that isn’t a valid reason,” said Freedberg.

As most legacy applicants come from families in a higher income bracket, legacy admissions also decrease the socioeconomic diversity within Ivy Leagues. According to a study by TheUpshot, 67 percent of Harvard students have families with an income in the top 20 percent. On top of this, legacy admissions decrease racial diversity. One study on legacy admissions found that while 40 percent of Harvard applicants are white, 70 percent of legacy applicants are white. Diversity in universities is important because it allows students with different experiences to learn from each other. Minds are changed and new ideas are created when students from different backgrounds come together.

Proponents of legacy admissions argue that banning the practice would decrease alumni donations, and therefore the quality of the school. However, a study titled “An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Legacy Preferences on Alumni Giving at Top Universities” found that “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.” Additionally, several schools, such as MIT, Johns Hopkins, and Carnegie Mellon, don’t practice legacy admissions and still manage to offer their students a world-class education.

Freedberg also discussed how she expects legacy admissions will affect her college application process. “I don’t have the benefit of being a legacy at any university. I have friends who do, and whether or not they choose to apply to those universities, they know that the option is available to them. They could probably go there if they do well enough in school, as opposed to someone like me, who would have to do something outstanding that sets me apart. It’s just a really big difference for us,” said Freedberg.

Legacy admissions must be ended. There is no proven benefit for universities who practice it, and it harms socioeconomic and racial diversity within universities. Legacy applicants do not need unfair boosts in the admissions process. Ending legacy admissions is simply the logical first step toward college admissions determined by merit instead of circumstance.