The Role of Legacy Admission at UPenn

Legacy in Admission, Legacy at Penn, Penn Legacies

Ivy Coach is featured in a podcast today for “The Daily Pennsylvanian’s” “Quite Frankly.”

A quarter of students admitted through Early Decision to the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 2022 are the children and grandchildren of UPenn alumni. That’s right — 25%. It’s an astounding statistic, especially considering legacy students made up only 16% of this year’s Early pool. Legacy students were almost twice as likely to earn admission as non-legacy applicants. But it’s not like the University of Pennsylvania is alone in offering preferential treatment in admissions to legacy applicants. All highly selective colleges are guilty of favoring the children and grandchildren of alumni, with some being more guilty than others (e.g., schools like UPenn that count the children of degree-holders from graduate programs as legacies rather than simply the children of alumni of the undergraduate school). An outstanding podcast for “The Daily Pennsylvanian’s” “Quite Frankly” examines the role of legacy admission at UPenn and at other highly selective colleges across America, exploring both the arguments that favor the practice and those that oppose it. Ivy Coach is featured in this podcast conducted by Jacob Gardenschwartz and Anika Ranginani and it’s certainly worth a listen.

The Arguments in Support of Legacy Admission

Legacies Give Back to Their Alma Maters…But Exactly How Much?

As Dr. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation whose writings on legacy admission we very much respect, asserts, legacy admission started in the Ivy League in the early part of the 20th century — out of a concern over a rise in Jewish and immigrant students applying to the universities. Indeed the history of legacy admission, a distinctly American practice, is one built on discrimination. As Brian Taylor of Ivy Coach points out on the podcast, the argument in favor of legacy admission is the legacy of giving. As he says, “When you admit the children and the grandchildren of people who attended previously, you create generations of people who are going to give back monetarily to the school…tuition dollars only pay a portion of what it costs to educate a student at the University of Pennsylvania.”

At least that’s what admissions officers think and so it’s why they favor legacy applicants. Whether it’s the case or not, because it’s perceived to be the case, it is built into the standard operating procedure of admissions when offers are weighing students’ case for admission. And in many specific instances, legacy families do give back big time to their alma maters. Think of the names on buildings at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course the children and grandchildren who hail from these families will become part of these generations of giving. But, as Dr. Kahlenberg interestingly points out, there is little empirical evidence in the whole collective pool of legacy applicants (not just the specific cases like the children of building donors) to suggest that the “existence of a legacy preference [has] any significant impact on giving.”

The Nonsensical Tie-Breaker Argument

This argument, one admissions officers are quick to publicly tout, is that legacy status doesn’t give an applicant a major advantage. It’s really only if two students are equal and one’s a legacy and one isn’t, the legacy card will break the tie. This argument, of course, is utter nonsense — as the statistical advantage legacies enjoy at UPenn so proves. As Dr. Kahlenberg points out, there is research that has found that legacy status increases a student’s chances of admission by 20 percentage points, while other research concludes legacy status is the equivalent of a 160 point increase on the SAT.

The Legacy Applicants Are Qualified Argument

The children and grandchildren of successful, intellectually curious people tend to be successful and intellectually curious themselves. It’s an argument that makes good sense to us. The children of UPenn alumni are more likely to be gifted than are the children from the general pool of non-UPenn alumni. But nonetheless, to reiterate, 25% of the Early Decision admits to the Class of 2022 are legacies. Are the folks who make this argument suggesting that there aren’t enough successful, intellectually curious parents who give birth to intellectually curious children who did not attend the University of Pennsylvania? A ridiculous argument indeed.

The Arguments Against Legacy Admission

Legacy Admission Overwhelmingly Favors White Applicants

Legacy admission disproportionately benefits white, high-wealth families. The practice, as Jacob asserts, stands in direct opposition to fostering diversity at an institution. Alumni from 25+ years ago at our nation’s most highly selective colleges are overwhelmingly white. Ironically, we’re now nearing the age when the children from more diverse alumni bodies will be applying to our nation’s highly selective colleges. So some would argue that to eliminate the practice now — as we near the moment when the practice can finally benefit African American, Latino, Native American, and other diverse young people — isn’t right either.

Violation of Our Tax Code and the Nobility Clause of U.S. Constitution

We have long echoed the words of Dr. Kahlenberg — that legacy admission violates our tax code, 26 U.S. Code § 170 to be specific. Parents who make tax-deductible donations should not receive anything in return for their donations. Certainly not preferential treatment for their children in admissions. Others argue that legacy admission at public university violates the Nobility Clause of the U.S. Constitution (otherwise known as the Emoluments Clause). We’re not exactly sure how legacy admission violates this particular clause, though we’re certainly open to hearing the argument.

Have a question on the role of legacy admission at UPenn and at other highly selective colleges? Let us know your questions, your concerns, your thoughts, and aspirations by posting a Comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.


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  • Legacy Mom says:

    Your articles disparaging legacy children are full of hurtful generalizations and are unfair to the thousands of children of legacies who are out there working their tails off to compete for a chance to attend the same school their parents did. As for your suggestion regarding an SAT “lift” — Adding 160 points to my son’s SAT would be a 1700 out of 1600. His best friend who was also an Ivy league legacy would have a 1750. These are brilliant students who scored in the top 1% on national tests. It takes a lot of nerve for you to suggest they are not deserving of admittance or taking a spot that should go to a “more deserving” candidate.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      You gave us a giggle, Legacy Mom. Our article presents arguments in support of and against legacy admission, a practice we oppose mostly because these slots take away from opportunities for low-income students and underrepresented minorities. Legacies remain overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly wealthy.

      There is empirical research to suggest that legacy status is the equivalent of a 160 point boost on the SAT, as Dr. Richard Kahlenberg so asserts in the podcast for “The Daily Pennsylvanian.” Your argument that a 160 point boost isn’t accurate because it would mean that your son would have beyond a perfect score lacks any empirical merit and is wholly nonsensical. We suggest you read the research. Or any empirical study for that matter.

      But we’re sure your son is as brilliant as you suggest. You’re obviously objective and your comment doesn’t smell of privilege one bit.

    • Legacy Son says:

      Your comment is ridiculous, if your son is as smart as you say (which top 1% is really not that impressive, I have scored above 1540 without even studying, and have won multiple international awards) than what is the problem here? Your son is Einstein right? Why would he even need legacy?

  • legacy dad says:

    Legacy admissions makes sense not just because of potential donations. In my opinion, the main reason legacy admissions makes sense is because legacy admits are more likely to succeed at that specific elite college. Through their parents, these students have rare insight into the workings of the school well in advance of getting there and invaluable guidance once they get there. Their families share with them valuable insights about the school culture, the resources, how to go about getting research positions/internships, common pitfalls to avoid etc, that most other students find out the hard way. Many alums stay in touch with the latest news so they can be a very valuable source of up-to-date information. I know this is what I did for my daughter when she attended my ivy alma mater and what I will do with my son if he gets into the school next year.

    Plus, as elitist as it sounds, most legacy admits tend to be more well-prepared for the rigors of an elite college because they come from rigorous private schools and have been raised in very high-functioning environments where they have learned how to perform at top levels.

    In the eyes of an elite college admissions office, legacies are just a safer bet.

  • AmusedParent says:

    Of Course Ivy Coach opposes legacy admissions. IF this practice is taken away, it will mean more stressed out parents and kids will seek out their services. Right now a good portion of parents don’t have to use their services, because they have an alternative.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      1. You seem to think you know our clientele. We’ve worked with many legacy applicants over the years at Ivy Coach. Just because a parent attended an institution doesn’t mean the child has great grades and scores. They often need help — especially since these legacy students are typically even more stressed out because they feel they have this card up their sleeve and need to fulfill their parents’ expectations.

      2. We have many positions that happen to support our business. We also have many positions that do not support our business. For instance, if your argument is that we work with many Asian and Asian American applicants, then why would we be such vocal opponents of ending Asian discrimination in admissions? Remember, our Asian and Asian American applicants have no trouble overcoming this discrimination.

      Bye Felicia (a.k.a. Amused Parent).

  • JB says:

    As a first generation / low income Asian American parent who attended an Ivy League university, it was fortunate to help my daughter use legacy status to help her gain admission to my alma mater. I do think Asians have a significant disadvantage in the college admissions process and was happy to have legacy level the playing field. My main concern for her was would she be successful and happy at my school. Her tests scores and other credentials were in the top third of last year’s class and felt she would do well. I think all parents should make that judgment call for their children. On a broader point, I do think more and more Asians will start to the see the benefit in legacy admissions as our kids come of age to counter-act the bias against them. I don’t want to be cynical because this country provides so much opporunity for those who work hard but it will be interesting if the white establishment will try to modify the rules to benefit them.


    Good day! I have a burning question. I am a graduate alumna and 7 year (returning) employee (with great tuition benefits) at an Ivy League institution. My daughter is a straight “A” graduating senior at an elite private college prep school. She applied to my school, but not during early decision, and she is awaiting a regular decision. She is also on her high school crew team but she didn’t want to take the sports recruitment route because she doesn’t want crew to be her primary focus; she wants her academics to take precedence. My question is, should I contact the admissions department and inform them about my status here? I do want them to know about my legacy and employment status, but I do not want to shed the opposite effect.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi Marlayne,

      Why wasn’t your employment information included on your daughter’s Common Application? There’s a prompt for mom’s employment.


        Thank you for your reply. She did include my employment and alumna information. It turns out that she did not get accepted. Ouch!

  • CuriousKid says:

    How much will legacy help in regular decision? Will it help more if I applied early decision? I have 4.4 weighted gpa and 1530 SAT

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Legacy can help big time…but only in Early Decision. Just take a look at the percentage of overall Early Decision admits to UPenn who are legacy applicants. The numbers are telling.

  • Cary Mom says:

    You left out one of the major reasons legacy students have a leg up even in the RD pools of competitive schools…yield. Like it or not admissions offices are judged on yield, thus is a legacy kid and a non legacy kid are tied…the belief, often borne out in fact, is that the legacy kid is more likely to attend which helps yield and helps schools when it comes time for the US News and World Report rankings. Thus tie frequently will go to the legacy. As someone who has worked in admissions for elite institutions for years – yield tops just about everything.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi Cary Mom,

      While you’re right that colleges indeed always do seek to boost their yield (and legacies are way more likely to matriculate), you’re not correct that legacies have an advantage in the Regular Decision round because they’re more likely to matriculate. In fact, the legacy advantage at just about every highly selective college that offers preference to legacies (e.g., not MIT) is only in the Early round. In the Regular Decision round, these colleges are thinking, “If this legacy loved us so much, why didn’t she apply here Early?”

  • trb says:

    The playing field isn’t level if you are not a legacy. I’d be an Olympic gold medalist in the 1500M track event if I was given a 10% head start because my dad went to the Olympics. Now that wouldn’t be fair would it?

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