Legacy Admission Has Got To Go

Legacy Status, Legacy Admissions, Admission as Legacy

Dr. Seuss would likely say, “The time has come, the time is now to end legacy admission.”

The practice of offering preferential treatment in admissions to the children and grandchildren of a school’s alumni base is a practice that is an anachronism in this young century. And it’s not one of those cute anachronisms like a typewriter on a mahogany executive desk (with an iPhone conspicuously charging beneath said desk). It is a practice that belongs in a time before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before Obergefell v. Hodges, before our country’s proud march towards equality for all. Today, one of our nation’s leading voices against the practice of legacy admission, Richard Kahlenberg, lifted his voice once again in a well argued piece for “The Atlantic.” His writings on the subject are deserving of a read.

A Call to End Legacy Admission

As Kahlenberg writes in his piece entitled “A New Call to End Legacy Admissions,” “Many college officials defend legacy preferences as a mere tiebreaker among otherwise equally qualified applicants… Research from the Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade of 10 highly selective colleges suggests being a legacy provides a boost equivalent to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600 points). And in 2011, research on 30 elite schools from the higher-education expert Michael Hurwitz found that the children of alumni saw a 45 percentage-point increase in their chances of admission compared to otherwise equally qualified candidates who were not legacies, controlling for factors such as SAT scores, athlete status, gender, race, and ‘many less-quantifiable characteristics.’ At many prestigious colleges, the relatives of alumni abound on campus. A recent Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2021 found that 29 percent of students had a relative who attended Harvard. This proportion far outnumbered those whose parents lacked a four-year college degree.”

We Echo the Call to End Legacy Admission

For many years, we have used Ivy Coach’s soapbox in the world of college admissions to echo the call to end legacy admission. Just a couple of weeks ago, we participated in a podcast with Richard Kahlenberg for the University of Pennsylvania’s newspaper, “The Daily Pennsylvanian.” Have a listen to the arguments for and against legacy admission to get a sense of both sides of the controversial issue. While there are many arguments for and against the practice, there is one argument that could potentially end legacy admission once and for all: legacy admission violates tax law, specifically 26 U.S. Code § 170. People should not receive any benefits for making tax-deductible donations to their alma maters, including preferential treatment for their children in admissions.

All that’s needed to challenge legacy admission in the courts is an Edward Blum-type figure, the powerful one-man band (who isn’t even a lawyer) who has made ending Affirmative Action his raison d’être. …Edward? But Edward’s busy challenging race-based admissions and we have a feeling he sees no issue with legacy admission. After all, it’s a practice that overwhelmingly favors Caucasian applicants. But maybe soon Edward will take issue with legacy admission too…as the children of underrepresented minorities who attended elite universities begin to apply to college in what will be a turning tide?

A Word to the Peanut Gallery

And to our critics who believe that the only reason we oppose the practice of legacy admission is because legacy students don’t need the help of a private college counseling firm, well, you keep believing that if it gives you the warm fuzzies. There are plenty of legacy students who don’t have great grades, who don’t have great scores, who aren’t all that interesting and thus need the help of a private college counselor. And, yes, it just might be your child. Think about the pressure these legacy students are under to live up to their parents’ expectations…they’ve got an advantage in the admissions process but will they capitalize on it? Legacy status, on its own, is — in almost every instance — not enough. And to these same critics, know that we take positions that both are and are not in our business interests. If these same critics believe (incorrectly) that the vast majority of our students tend to be Asian or Asian American, then why would we so vocally oppose Asian and Asian American discrimination in college admissions if we are alleged to benefit from such discrimination? …There are those crickets again. Chirp chirp.


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  • JPC says:

    Would you agree that there is at least some advantage when a Legacy has to answer an admission essay quesion along the lines of “Why Harvard”? I’m not talking about an answer that explains Dad went there and I want to be like Dad, but rather a much deeper understanding of what makes Harvard Harvard based on a family’s greater association with the school. And, if so, don’t such essay questions have an inherent bias baked into them?

    It also seems like you are combining two separate issues: preference to legacies and preference to legacies whose families give money. The tax issue obviously only applies to the second. Would you oppose any weight to legacy status — i.e., should applications stop asking where parents attended? Still presumably would ask if parents attended college because of emphasis on need for first gen students.

    Note that I am not being critical of your position — just wondering how far it can be taken. I always enjoy the blog.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi JPC,

      Thanks for your kind note! First, you’re about to roll your eyes, but if you’re a regular reader of our blog, then we’ve given you good practice at the eye roll. Harvard doesn’t ask Why Harvard. They don’t need to. They’ll assume you’ll go if you get in. It’s Harvard. But we’ll pretend your question was for UPenn. We wouldn’t encourage a legacy student to write much at all about their dad’s experience (or even attending UPenn football games with dad growing up…it’s too transparent that you’re trying to push the legacy card). So we don’t see that advantage baked into the Why UPenn essay. Whether you’re a legacy or non-legacy applicant, you’ve got to show — in very specific ways — how you hope to contribute to the current campus. Regarding legacy status, if the alum hasn’t donated since graduation (even very small but loyal donations), that legacy status won’t help quite as much. The college may even resent the fact that the alum hasn’t shown his or her love to the institution.

  • JPC says:

    Fair enough but (1) even if you don’t talk about Dad’s college experience, the interested child of alumini simply has much deeper resources to draw upon when answering “Why Dad’s alma mater” — much more likley to have actually visited the campus and be aware, or been made aware, of aspects that may differentiate one school from another. So there is still an arguable inherent bias in the question. Perhaps that is why Harvard does not pose the question. (2) The point about donations is why the tax issue ultimately goes nowhere. It would be very difficult to show a quid pro quo where there are some legacies who are admitted who don’t have a record of family donations. This doesn’t undermine the point that legacies may be an unfair preference but I think the tax argument is too attenuated (or, perhaps better stated, too difficult to prove) to be of any moment in the ultimate analysis.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi JPC,

      You raise valid points. Certainly a legacy may have visited the campus a bunch and formed some real memories at the school. It’s why we encourage our students — whether they’re legacies or not — to visit these campuses, to spend as much time at schools as possible. And there’s a whole lot of specifics a student can express in a Why College essay, specifics they can glean through research. Not by reading the admission’s website. Not by reading the college’s homepage. By really digging in and learning about the school. Our students, whether they’re legacies or not, teach admissions officers things they don’t know about their own schools. They don’t regurgitate the school’s marketese. It’s a big part of what we do.

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