Legacy admissions policies that give preference to children of alumni have always been a topic of some controversy, but they have recently come under greater scrutiny in the broader conversation on college admissions.
It’s not a secret that legacy applicants receive a fairly significant admissions bump — about a 45% higher chance of getting into a school — and many of the top universities seem to openly endorse the process, although they say it only becomes a factor in “tie-break” situations.
The president of Princeton University recently described legacy preferences as “a recognition of a special bond that Princeton has with its alumni and it matters so much to the University.“
The former president of George Washington University invoked similar logic when defending the practice in The New York Times, writing:
… careful accommodation of a limited number of youngsters whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have helped to lay the foundation on which the institution stands shows a respect for tradition and honours those without whom the contemporary university might not even exist.
Of course, this is not the case for all schools. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology admissions officer wrote on his blog that “if anyone in our office ever advocated for a mediocre applicant on the basis of their ‘excellent pedigree’ they would be kicked out of the committee room.”
We were curious as to why this policy started, and how it evolved into the standard for so many top universities. We turned to UC Berkeley Professor Jerome Karabel’s “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” which offers a great view of the social and cultural changes that drove colleges to radically change their standards for new students.
He writes that the decision to boost acceptance rates for children of alumni was spurred by the quickly increasing immigrant population entering the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. As Karabel writes in his introduction (emphasis ours):
Like the most prestigious universities of other nations, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton — the three institutions at the center of this book — admitted students almost entirely on the basis of academic criteria for most of their long histories. But this changed in the 1920s, when the traditional academic requirements no longer served to screen out students deemed “socially undesirable.” By then, it had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of increasing numbers of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background. This transformation was becoming visible at precisely the time that the nation-wide movement to restrict immigration was gaining momentum, and it was unacceptable to the Anglo-Saxon gentlemen who presided over the Big Three (as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were called by then).
In response to the influx of outsiders, Karabel writes, the Big Three created an admissions system that still exists in some form today:
The defining feature of the new system was its categorical rejection of the idea that admission should be based on academic criteria alone. Though the view that scholastic performance should determine admission was not uncommon among the faculty, the top administrators of the Big Three (and of other leading private colleges, such as Columbia and Dartmouth) recognised that relying solely on any single factor — especially one that could be measured, like academic excellence — would deny them control over the composition of the freshmen class. Charged with protecting their institutional interests, the presidents of the Big Three wanted the latitude to admit the dull sons of major donors and to exclude the brilliant but unpolished children of immigrants, whose very presence prompted privileged young Anglo-Saxon men — the probable leaders and donors of the future — to seek their education elsewhere. … The centrepiece of the new policy would be “character” — a quality thought to be in short supply among Jews but present in abundance among high-status Protestants.
For more information on the legacy of legacy admissions, you can buy Karabel’s book here.
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