Income Brackets at Elite Colleges

An editorial in The Tech condemns the practice of legacy admissions.

Legacy admissions is, in our view, a VHS in a streaming world. The practice of offering preferential treatment to the children and grandchildren of alumni is more fitting an aristocracy — not an American meritocracy. And so when we came across an editorial on the pages of MIT’s newspaper, The Tech, by Charles Theuer entitled “Does merit matter in America?,” you can imagine we were cheering on the opponent of legacy admissions — a practice we have long opposed.

Students from Top 1% at Elite Colleges Can Outnumber Students from Bottom 60%

As Theuer writes, “How pervasive is the injustice? Pretty pervasive, if one assesses data from The New York Times from a 1991 cohort (approximately the class of 2013) that compared the percentage of students from the top one percent income bracket to the entire bottom 60% income bracket. The study included schools that practice legacy admissions (Duke, Stanford, and every Ivy League school) as well as ‘top ten’ schools that don’t (just MIT and Caltech — yes, it’s a short list of two schools). At most ‘top ten’ schools, more students are drawn from the top one percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60%.”

And that’s true. According to that New York Times study, 19.5% of Brown University students at the time came from the top 1% income bracket, while 18.2% came from the bottom 60% income bracket. At Dartmouth College, 20.7% came from the top 1%, while 14.4% came from the bottom 60%. At Yale University, the figures stood at 18.7% for the top 1% and 16.3% for the bottom 60%. At Duke University, 19.2% were from the top 1%, while 16.5% were from the bottom 60%. We trust our readers are getting the idea.

But Ending Legacy Admissions Entirely Will End Cashflow to Educate Low-Income Students

But what Theuer’s editorial fails to address is that the families of students from the top 1% income bracket often subsidize the educational costs of students from that bottom 60% income bracket. Yes, without offering preferential treatment to the children of major alumni donors, our nation’s elite colleges would not be able to admit as many low-income students as they currently do — because, otherwise, these schools would be forced to dip into their endowments. As you can imagine, schools are reluctant to dip into their endowments to cover tuition costs.

Our Totally Imperfect Solution to Addressing the Legacy Admissions Conundrum

So simply decrying legacy admission — and the admission of so many students from the top 1% — is, in our view, impractical. As our loyal readers know, we are vocal opponents of the practice of legacy admissions. But we are not blind to why legacy admissions exists. Our nation’s elite colleges rely on donations from alumni. It is why we have proposed a fix to legacy admissions. Our proposal is, we fully acknowledge, absolutely imperfect. But it would improve the college admissions process nonetheless. So what’s our fix? We propose that our nation’s elite colleges cease offering preferential treatment to all legacy applicants with the exception of legacy applicants who happen to be major development cases (the progeny of the major donors who are essentially subsidizing the educations of low-income students at these schools).

While we fully recognize this proposal will outrage some, this will lead to the admission of fewer legacy applicants. Legacies will no longer comprise 20% of an incoming class. The figure will dip into the single digits, freeing up room for these schools to admit more deserving low- and middle-income students. And these schools will be able to continue to admit and educate low- and middle-income students with the continued donations from the major development cases.

Love this proposal? Hate it? Don’t hold back. Let us know your thoughts by posting a Comment below. We look forward to hearing from you!


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  • Allie says:

    Your argument makes the assumption that eliminating or reducing legacy admission will necessarily result in a decrease in overall alumni giving. Do you have data that shows that is true? Because it is a big assumption and if it is not true, it changes everything.

  • Chatham Henry says:

    The problem with this thinking is that no university can predict which of their alumni will be giving $25 Million in 30 years. And let’s say an alumna plans to give money but she hasn’t given it yet and her daughter doesn’t get in before that, she might never give at all. So the school loses. The other issue which is that rich white alumni, historically, have been far more generous with their alma mater than wealthy minority alumni. So, decreasing your donor class can hurt your school down the road- tremendously. The caricature of the rich white development student, belies the reality of humble white billionaires like Chuck Feeney who gave $1 BILLION to Cornell- (you heard that right- $1 billion). So what if you had rejected Chuck’s daughter from Cornell before he started donating? Think he would be so generous? Let’s not kid ourselves.

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