'Legacy Kids' Still Get A Staggering College Admissions Advantage And It Needs To End

Legacy admissions — giving children of alumni preference in the admissions process — has a long history in American higher education. Kids often follow their parents to the same school, frequently applying with the hope that they’ll get a favourable look. 

How much of a boost do they get? A 2011 study of 30 elite institutions found that the children of undergraduate alumni (“primary legacies”) were, on average, 45.1% more likely to get in.

An earlier study by Princeton’s Thomas Espenshade found that the legacy advantage was equivalent to a 160-point swing on an SAT score. 

That’s not a tie-breaker between equally qualified applicants; it’s a massive advantage. That’s especially clear at the hugely competitive Ivies. 

  • Harvard’s legacy admissions rate hovers around 30%. Its overall rate was 5.8% this year. 
  • For Princeton’s class of 2015, 33% of legacy applicants were admitted. The overall admissions rate for that class was 8.5%. 
  • Yale says it admits 20 to 25% of legacy applicants. It admitted 6.7% overall this year. 

Keep in mind, those legacy admissions rates are self-reported.  

There’s some evidence that the practice has declined. The proportion of legacy admissions is lower than it used to be. In 1958, the legacy admissions rate was 70%. A pamphlet from the Princeton Alumni Council reads: 

“No matter how many other boys apply, the Princeton son is judged from an academic standpoint solely on this one question: Can he be expected to graduate? If so, he’s admitted. If not, he’s not admitted. It’s as simple as that.”

That we’ve moved beyond that is good news. But the move should be towards abolishing the practice, not gradually reducing it. 

These aren’t enormous numbers of students relative to the whole population, but the practice is part of a system that should be a meritocracy that helps people live the American dream, that often ends up concentrating wealth among a few people. 

For all the talk about tradition and close alumni relationships, it’s really just about money. An alum who encourages their child to apply to their alma mater likely had a good experience, and if their child gets into the school, they’re even more likely to donate. 

If its about money in the first place, wealthy families or heavy donors are likely to get additional preference. 

There’s already a “rich kid problem” at the country’s elite schools, and legacy applicants tend to be white and wealthy. Underrepresented minorities make up about 12.5% of the applicant pool at selective schools. They make up only 6.7% of the legacy pool.

It’s giving a spot to someone who’s likely more wealthy, and definitely has at least one educated parent. That may come at the expense of someone more qualified, or who managed to excel despite not having similar advantages. 

It’s not a problem exclusive to elite private institutions. Selective public universities, including the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia favour legacies as well. 

As for the argument that schools depend on alumni donations, and should take any opportunity to increase them, there’s another way to do that.

Just admit the highest possible calibre of applicants and give them the best possible education. 

It’s worked out pretty well for CalTech and MIT, neither of which considers legacy in admissions decisions.

MIT Admissions Counselor Chris Peterson puts it pretty bluntly in a blog post:

“I personally would not work for a college which had legacy admission because I am not interested in simply reproducing a multi generational lineage of educated elite. And 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.”

Every school loves six-figure alumni checks. But alumni kids don’t need that extra boost. If they’re of high enough calibre, they’ll make it into a good school on their own. The low-income, high achieving students who don’t even apply to great schools really do need the help. 

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