Ending the Practice of Legacy Admission

Legacy Status, Legacy in Admission, Legacy Candidates
Ivy Coach echoes our call today for an end to legacy admission (photo credit: Bryan Y.W. Shin).

Legacy admission, the practice of offering preferential treatment in college admissions decision-making to the progeny of a school’s alumni, is a practice that we believe to be an anachronism of this still young century. In fact, from atop our soapbox in college admissions, we’ve been calling for an end to the practice of legacy admission for many years. But we’re not naive. We understand why the practice remains intact in college admissions offices of elite universities across the land. To put it simply, colleges rely on donations. Tuition dollars only cover a portion of a college student’s education — donations cover the rest. The folks who donate to elite schools overwhelmingly tend to be loyal alumni of those institutions. To offer preferential treatment to the children and grandchildren of these alumni is, as they say in Latin, quid pro quo.

Rejecting a System of Hereditary Privilege

But just because it makes financial sense for these universities doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t seem right to us that one-fourth of all Early Decision admitted students to an Ivy League school would be legacies — it seems excessive. In a recent article for “Inside Higher Ed” entitled “I Pledge $5,000 to My Alma Mater if It Will End Legacy Preferences,” R. Guru Singh writes “We need more opportunity and mobility for high school kids across America, from Bluefield, W.V., to the Bronx, N.Y. With all his flaws, Thomas Jefferson rejected the system of hereditary privilege of the English monarchy and hoped America could be a natural aristocracy based on virtue and talent.” And while Singh’s pledge of $5,000 is a bit silly, we echo these words and the sentiment of our founding father.

Some admissions officers at elite universities over the years have claimed that legacy status in admissions essentially serves as a tie-breaker — that if two students are equal and only if they’re equal, that the legacy applicant will earn admission over the non-legacy applicant. But that of course is utter nonsense. A pool of Early Decision admits to an Ivy League institution in which a quarter of them are the progeny of alumni puts that claim to bed, no?


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  • APC says:

    Any thoughts on what the effect of eliminating legacies would do to financial aid? Though I have no data to support the thesis, I suppose that there are more full pay legacies than there are full pay admits in the overall pool. So the preference has a second financial rationale at least partially independent from what you cite above.

    As between two candidates, both full pay, one legacy and one not, should there still be no preference? The non-legacy full pay is far less likely to need the “opportunity and mobility” you reference. And the schools presumably can cite tradition/historical links as a plus factor (plus I suppose it may be likely that a legacy may have a better “Why this School” essay if they have been visiting it regularly with the alum parent). That may be more in accord with the tie-breaker you reference.

    If admission is need blind, legacy may be a preference for less likely than average to need financial aid resources. This may be less of a factor with Ivy League schools, but could be a substantial one for other schools.

    To be clear, I am not disputing the premise — i.e., that it is unfair, at least at the numbers cited. Just wondering what overall financial aid would look like if the legacy factor were truly ignored.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi APC,

      Your points are spot on, though remember that most highly selective colleges are not need-blind as they claim to be. Rather, they’re need-aware. The financial aid coffers are filled by donors as you correctly presume (and these donors are typically alumni). Would donations sharply decrease at elite universities if legacy preference in admissions were eliminated? Yes. Donors, in many cases, aren’t just donating out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re donating so their children will have increased odds of admission. Eliminate the policy and we suspect folks would be a whole lot less generous. So, yes, legacy admission exists for a reason — though it doesn’t make it right.

  • Aspenwood says:

    Yes, it makes so much financial sense to kill the goose that lays the golden egg at elite universities year after year in the form of donations for scholarships and debt-free grants, facilities, endowed chairs, programs , athletics, etc. Resentment is always a thoughtful and effective basis for making important policy decisions.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi Aspenwood – We don’t disagree with the sentiment of your remarks. But do keep in mind that while many alumni give back to their alma maters, it’s a select few alumni who donate tens of millions. While colleges love the loyal alumni donors who give a couple of hundred dollars every year (and schools offer preferential treatment to their children in admissions, too), we’d argue that 25% of Early Decision admits don’t need to be legacies to still cover the cost of financial aid for those students who need it. You can still get the golden egg without completely killing the goose. There’s room for compromise.

  • Ivymom says:

    I also think elite schools want legacies because legacies have a higher likelihood of success once they are in. These kids have grown up in very high functioning environments, have learned how to handle the kind of pressure present at an elite school, and most importantly have access to a wealth of insider information about the school-specific resources, culture etc.

    My older child (non-legacy) attends an ivy and always talks about how most legacy kids she knows hit the ground running while the rest of them were trying to figure things out.

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