Harvard’s Legacy Problem

Harvard Legacy Problem, Legacies at Harvard, Legacy Preference at Harvard
Over 36% of Harvard’s Class of 2022 are legacies. That’s absurd.

From atop our soapbox in college admissions, we at Ivy Coach have been calling for an end to the practice of legacy admission for years. But unlike many folks who simply decry legacy preference in admissions because it’s unfair, we have decried legacy preference in admissions because we believe certain aspects of the practice violate the law: tax law. After all, the legacy applicants who have the biggest edge in the highly selective college admissions process are not just the children or grandchildren of ordinary alumni; they’re the children or grandchildren of alumni who are major donors to the university. 26 U.S. Code § 170 makes clear that folks should not receive anything in return for tax-deductible donations. And yet in return for their most generous donations, their children receive preferential treatment in admissions. But Uncle Sam!

Legacy Admission Has Its Drawbacks, But Its Benefits Too

While we have been quite vocal about calling for an end to the practice of legacy admission, unlike many folks who see no value in offering preferential treatment to the children of donors and simply label it unfair, we would counter that offering preferential treatment to the children of donors — the very practice that we believe and assert violates the law — is, in some ways, important for students from low-income families, for underrepresented minorities, for students who will be the first in their families to attend college. And why? Full tuition at most highly selective colleges doesn’t cover the full cost of a student’s education; colleges rely on donations to educate folks who deserve — and need — financial aid to attend.

Legacy Admission In Its Current Incarnation Must End

So while we have called for an end to the practice of legacy admission, it’s really just our opening salvo in what we hope will become negotiations in the years to come. We are open to a compromise — as the entire college admissions community should be. We have suggested that legacy students whose families are not major donors (e.g., $10 million or more) receive no preference in admission. This way, only the children or grandchildren of major donors will receive the bump — so deserving students who need financial aid can still benefit from the practice of legacy admission (even though so many don’t realize they too benefit). Such a practice would still be totally unfair, but at least a smaller percentage of an incoming class at a highly selective college would be legacies.

Harvard Encapsulates Legacy Admission Gone Too Far

You see, when Harvard University’s Class of 2022 is comprised of over 36% legacy students, that’s a problem. In fact it’s more than a problem; it’s absurd. For many years, highly selective colleges argued that legacy status in admissions was essentially a difference-maker only if all else between two competing applicants — one of whom was legacy and one of whom was not — was equal. That of course is malarkey. 36% of an entire undergraduate class is not reflective of a slight edge; it’s reflective of a big problem. And, of course, Harvard is not alone. With only a couple of exceptions among highly selective colleges (e.g., MIT does not take into account legacy status in admissions), too many are guilty of contributing to this problematic trend.

And so, today, we echo our call for an end to the practice of legacy admission at Harvard and at every school across the land. And we do so fully aware that a version of legacy admission should and must remain in place so deserving students who need financial aid can continue to attend these schools. That’s why a call for an end to legacy preference is merely our opening salvo. May the negotiations alas begin.


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  • MPW says:

    You are confusing two different issues by stating that 36% of Harvard students are legacies. In order for the school to give any “boost” to an applicant, the student must be the child of a parent with an UNDERGRADUATE degree from Harvard. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and parents who went to one of the graduate schools don’t matter at all. The fact that a large percentage of students have those other connections just shows that winning the genetic lottery (which is related to more than just parents) helps in college admissions. But we know that already. But by conflating these two issues (legacy boost and genetic lottery), you are spreading an inherently incorrect narrative.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Your comment doesn’t make much sense to us. We are not conflating two issues. We did not say anything about grandchildren or the children of graduate degree-holders from Harvard in the post. In fact, there is only one paragraph that is Harvard-specific — a case example if you will. We simply wrote legacies at Harvard — and, yes, over 36% of Harvard’s Class of 2022 are indeed legacies. Is your position that it’s reasonable that 36% of an undergraduate class at Harvard are the children of legacies (or winners of the genetic lottery as you seemed to put it)? If so, you’re absolutely entitled to that position. We just happen to think it’s ridiculous that you believe a good portion of the 36% of seats can’t be filled with remarkably talented young people of all races and socioeconomic statuses whose parents didn’t happen to go to Harvard. They’re out there. We’re confident Harvard can admit them and thereby decrease the legacy admits.

      • HEH says:

        Always appreciate your info. I read your article and the comment, so I went to the data instead of the summary articles in CNBC/ Money, etc, to try to find the truth. The commenter is correct – the 36% refers to any relative, any type of degree… it’s addition of multiple pieces of raw data. So, it’s really how you define legacy and how Harvard defines legacy that is at issue. If it’s just a parent who attended, the legacy admits are about 14% of the class this year. If it includes siblings, up to over 20%… and so on.
        This does not change the issues around legacy admits, but the startling numbers being reported in some headlines seem to be more about click bait than reality. And perhaps we will see less transparency from Harvard in the future, which would also be problematic, if we misuse or misreport their data.

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