It’s Time for Colleges to End Legacy Admissions


Gia Shin, Staff Writer

In the world of college admissions, affirmative action and legacy preference are often seen as two sides of the same coin. Institutions can get away with favoring legacy students as long as they also show a commitment to diversity. During one Harvard admissions trial on affirmative action, however, surprising statistics emerged regarding the discrepancy between legacy admissions and overall acceptance rates. According to The New York Times, the former was found to be 33%, while the latter only 6%. This is a large gap, to say the least.

When justifying this disparity, academic institutions tend to rely on two arguments. The first involves what Brown’s Dean of Admissions Jim Miller calls “a sense of community.” According to this argument, promoting legacy status helps foster an intergenerational bond between students and alumni. This makes networking easier and contributes to the vision of a college as one big family. The second reason is economic. Alumni parents, so the argument goes, are more likely to make larger donations, thereby bolstering the school’s ranking and endowment. More money means more improvements, as well as financial aid. Thus, in 2017, Harvard concluded that without legacy preference, their funding might take a hit. However, a study tracking seven institutions revealed that when schools dropped their legacy preference, there was no corresponding fall in alumni donations. If these results are accurate, then the “two sides of the same coin” argument loses much of its force. Legacy preference starts to seem more like an “affirmative action for the wealthy elite.”

Although there’s little evidence that removing this policy would have a downside, the upsides are obvious. The admissions process would be based on merit alone, rather than the accident of one’s lineage. It would give first-generation applicants a fairer shot, promoting social mobility.

Furthermore, removing legacy preference would encourage privileged students from elite families not to coast by on their pedigree, but to develop a solid resume with extracurriculars and community service—all things that many students without connections do anyway. Since privileged students arguably will become the more powerful members of society, it is crucial to instill a good work ethic and strong values in them.

From a practical standpoint, penalizing legacy-based institutions may be a non-starter. It is unclear how or whether that should be done. More promising, however, is the Brookings Institution’s suggestion that we reward schools that drop “anti-meritocratic” policies. Here, Aaron Klein and Richard Reeves have proposed a reduction in endowment taxes as an appealing incentive. Under this plan, assuming schools experience little to no drop in alumni donations, they should see a net increase in their bottom line. Thus, it makes both ethical and financial sense for colleges to engage in this practice. In short, the two-sided coin can be tossed.