When picking the next batch of Quakers, focus on merit, not legacy

Christy Qiu

October 21, 2018

As a first-generation student, I was the pride of my family when I got into Penn. Both my parents never graduated from middle school, and education was the last thing on my grandparents’ minds.

Unknowledgeable about the college application process, my parents supported me from behind, and I relied on and did everything myself, from researching which colleges to apply to and answering essay questions to preparing for interviews and filling out the FAFSA. So, by the time decisions arrived, my parents weren’t even clear about which colleges I had applied to. Penn was barely on their radar.

This couldn’t be more untrue for some of my peers, who’ve had one or more parent or grandparent that has attended Penn. For some, they’ve been practically destined to be a Quaker from birth. Maybe they grew up wearing Penn bibs and sucking Penn pacifiers. Maybe for all their life, they’ve been driven around in a car with a license plate that read “Penn Alumni.” Maybe their go-to pajamas include hand-me-down Penn shirts that originate from previous generations. They’ve grown up with helpful resources and advantages, and they undoubtedly have an upper hand in admissions.

“Alumni/ae relations” are “considered” throughout Penn’s admissions process and are “given the most consideration through Early Decision.” For my class year, this resulted in legacy students comprising 25 percent of the early admit pool. As of last August, legacy students formed 16 percent of Penn’s undergraduates. Other schools display an active preference towards legacy students as well. 22.1 percent of Cornell University’s early admit pool for the Class of 2022 were legacies. At Harvard University, the overall admit rate of legacy students is up to five times that of non-legacies.

While I knew legacy admissions was pervasive within the Ivy League, these statistics strike a chord with me, and they should with you too.

Legacy admissions, regardless of whether they are used as tie-breakers or other methods of consideration, undervalue equally qualified or more qualified students without legacy statuses who’ve been successful without familial advantages. An assembly line manufacturing baby elites, legacy admissions is a modern-day aristocracy. Using legacy admissions as a way to honor a family’s tradition of attending Penn is the same as rewarding students for being born into the right family. Students who aren’t members of a “Penn dynasty” can be just as invested in the University’s history and mission.

There is one main argument supporting legacy admissions: money. Legacy admissions is widely believed to stimulate donations from content alumni, which may then be distributed as financial aid for low-income students. These donations do indeed help fund Penn, but with Penn’s multibillion dollar endowment, that’s mostly made up of investments in private equities, it’s unreasonable to believe that one’s financial aid comes solely from alumni donations.

One look at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveals that private, highly selective universities do not need to, and should not, rely on legacy admissions for funding. MIT, which does not practice and instead denounces legacy admissions, still managed to rack up $81.9 million in donations to its Annual Fund in 2017, in contrast to the Penn Fund’s record-breaking 2018 result of $37.5 million. At MIT, approximately 57 percent of its undergraduate student body is awarded need-based financial aid, while 35 percent attend tuition-free. While Penn currently boasts an endowment return of 12.9 percent and a recently announced 5.3 percent increase in financial aid, MIT surpassed Penn with a return of 13.5 percent and a 9.6 percent financial aid increase.

Ivy Coach Managing Director Brian Taylor believes that legacy admissions for the children of alumni donors is a violation of tax law, specifically 26 U.S. Code § 170. The law stipulates that people who make tax-deductible donations are prohibited from receiving anything in return. Legacy admissions breaches this law since donors receive gifts of preferential treatment in admissions for their future generations. This kind of quid pro quo can’t be legal.

If Penn is looking for donations, it needs to cultivate a sense of pride and loyalty while students are on campus, not through a corrupted structure of giving and taking. This cultivation starts by ensuring that students feel a personal connection to Penn, through the life-changing courses they take during their four years or the lifelong bonds they build through clubs and organizations. Students must feel safe on campus, knowing there are resources to help strengthen mental health and people they can turn to when things get tough. An enjoyable and flourishing four years at Penn leads to alumni voluntarily donating with genuine intentions and creates a connection that triumphs any self-centered affiliation formed through legacy admissions.

Especially for first-generation students, legacy admissions are a jump-the-fence type of issue. Before getting into college, most of us are united with the same belief that legacy admissions is utterly wrong, but the second we get accepted to our desired colleges, these ardent beliefs are fractured into a dichotomy. The second some students get a taste of victory by gaining what they want out of the college application process, they want more. They want their own future children to reap the benefits of their hard work, and coast their way to an Ivy League acceptance letter.

These students must realize that in the large scheme of things, alumni donors contributing to their college tuitions is only prolonging a fundamentally unjust system.

Penn needs to judge students not based on the ancestry that they were born with, but based on students’ own proven merit. I would hope that, in the future, my children will never have to question whether their legacy status helped them get into the college of their choice. Abolishing legacy admissions might make a dent in Penn’s incredibly wealthy financial status, but it’s the right thing to do.