The Tradition of Legacy Admissions… Is It Time to End Them?

Jessie Garbeil, Contributing Writer

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According to a 2018 Inside Higher Ed survey, 42 percent of private universities and six percent of public universities consider legacy status, and, while most admissions counselors state that it may offer only a “slight advantage,” it can result in one candidate’s admission or rejection simply based on their family’s social status and education level. 

Legacy admissions at most schools inherently favor the wealthy. From 1980 to 2015, the percentage of young adults who are college graduates has risen from 24 to 36 percent, signifying that the ability and decision to attend college is far more typical for this generation than the last. 

While many universities only use legacy admissions as a slight consideration, others rely on it extensively, with a shocking 29.3 percent of Harvard’s Class of 2021 admitted on legacy status. According to data from the college research website Naviance, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is, in some institutions, as much as thirty-one percentage points higher than that for all applicants.

Legacy, like race, has long been a hotly contested factor in college admissions. Regardless of legacy admissions’ purpose and underlying goal today, the roots of legacy admissions are historically racist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic. While the consequences of legacy consideration may not be intentionally bigoted today, they almost certainly were in the 1920s. As immigrants and Jews began to attend elite universities, legacy was invoked as a way to favor American-born, Anglo-Saxon students. 

Today, the use of race in college admissions is increasingly under scrutiny both by the public and by the government, but if we are to condemn advantages based on race, it is only appropriate to do the same for legacy students. There is nothing wrong about an entirely merit-based system of admissions. In addition, it is essential to note that the consideration of race in college admissions was introduced to encourage college graduation for demographics that historically did not attend college. In many ways, legacy admissions at elite schools have the opposite goal in mind: to encourage a dynasty of college-educated, successful alumni with the same family name and loyalty. 

In contrast, according to Clark’s Vice President of Admissions, “the holistic rubric that [Clark] uses to evaluate applicants does not take into account legacy status- meaning it is not an intentionally weighted factor when making the recommendation to admit or deny.”

It is unfair, however, to categorize legacy admissions as inherently unfair and that legacy students are in any way less qualified to attend elite colleges than any other applicant. Children of college-educated or wealthy individuals often have access to college-prep education, which likely accounts for the disproportionate amount of legacy students at many Ivy League colleges, rather than a blatant favoring of legacy applicants without academic prowess. 

There may be no problem with legacy admission in and of itself. The problem, though, lies with the lack of information and the lack of transparency within many admissions departments. Many schools do not publish either the percentage of their students that are legacy applicants nor if they even consider legacy at all. In 2003, Senate Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts introduced a bill that would have required colleges to publish their legacy admit rate and the socioeconomic status of these legacy students, the bill was never passed. Information is the key to unpacking the mystery behind legacy admissions, rather than a blind condemnation of them. 

More colleges should perhaps take up this same mentality; indeed, if most legacy applicants are just as qualified as non-legacy students, the abolishment of legacy admissions should in actuality have little effect. In the United States, we are obsessed with the concept of meritocracy and the misconception that “success” is based entirely on ability; the American dream that, although gone from the forefront of our culture, is still ingrained in our society. The continuation of practices like legacy admissions without revealing data on how they favor students based on socioeconomic status goes against our core values and the formation of the merit-based, equal society that we strive towards.