Nearly a third of Harvard’s incoming Class of 2021 consists of legacy students. That’s right. If you pick out three Harvard undergraduates at random, chances are strong that one will be the progeny of a Harvard alum. But if that statistic alone isn’t astounding to our readers, let’s further break down legacy admission by the numbers. Would it surprise anyone to know that more students hail from the top 1% than from the bottom 60% of the income bracket at five Ivy League colleges (Brown, Dartmouth, Penn, Princeton, and Yale) along with 33 additional universities? For highly selective universities that are so proud to offer admission to low-income students, to students who will be the first in their families to attend college, this is indeed the epitome of irony. And since we’ve got a soapbox in college admissions here at Ivy Coach, we will use it to shout out from the mountains of Tahoe to the keys of Florida, “Hey hey, ho ho. Legacy admission has got to go.”
Challenging the Value of Legacy Admission
We have articulated many times over the years on the pages of our college admissions blog why colleges love their legacy applicants. Colleges seek to create deep-rooted family connections — to foster a sense of community and, yes, to inspire fundraising efforts. It’s commonly understood in highly selective college admissions that offering preferential treatment in admissions to the children of alumni donors promotes further donations, donations that quite often subsidize the college educations of the low-income students the universities so covet.
But a “CNBC” piece by Jonathan Blumberg entitled “Harvard’s incoming freshman class is one-third legacy—here’s why that’s a problem” challenges this very belief: “As the Washington Post notes, Chad Coffman found in his book, ‘Affirmative Action for the Rich,’ that when seven colleges stopped accounting for legacy status during the admissions process between 1998 and 2008, there was ‘no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving.'” Wouldn’t it be interesting to observe trends in alumni giving if more colleges — even temporarily — dropped legacy admission, to put it to the ultimate test?
Another Irony Concerning Legacy Admission
So in spite of the press releases issued by college admissions offices each year in which schools boast about statistics like the percentage of students in the incoming class who will be the first in their families to attend college, colleges are still heavily valuing students who are anything but the first in their families to attend college. A study by Michael Hurwitz (we love his studies!) found that legacy applicants enjoy a 23.3% boost in their chances for admission after controlling for certain variables.
There is irony here but do you know what’s even more ironic? As Blumberg’s piece correctly points out, legacy admissions policies were put in place in the early twentieth century so as to weed out applicants they deemed undesirable. Such students included immigrants — notably people of the Jewish faith. During a week in which our nation’s anxious Dreamers are worrying about their futures in the only country they’ve ever known, it’s interesting that the United States Department of Justice is singling out the practice of Affirmative Action rather than legacy admission as their prime target in changing the college admissions process. It’s interesting to note the similarities in America when legacy admissions policies were put into practice in the early twentieth century and now, seventeen years into this twenty-first century. It seems that not much has changed.