Why Do Colleges Still Give Preference To Kids Whose Parents Went There?

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS

Livie Jacobs is an ambitious high school senior from Massachusetts. Her resume is impressive: she’s taken eight AP courses, scored in the top 5 percent nationally on the SAT, served as the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, and will graduate second in her high school class. Nonetheless, she wasn’t accepted to most of the top colleges she applied to.

She was disappointed. “Growing up, I idolized the Ivy League schools,” Livie said.

Livie’s story is shared by thousands of high school students across the country. As acceptance rates at elite schools continue to plummet, more and more highly qualified students are being rejected from excellent schools they could otherwise succeed at, if given the chance.

But other students have a very different story. Some high schoolers — who are on average whiter and wealthier than their peers — are provided with a unique privilege in the college admissions process simply because they were born to the right family. This privilege is known as the legacy preference.

Legacy preference policies have a tarnished history, do little good for the colleges that employ them, and effectively serve as a form of affirmative action for the wealthy.

Legacy preference is the practice of providing qualifying students who have some sort of family connection to the school with an advantage in the college admissions process. Most schools that privilege these students ensure that each legacy application gets at least a second read-over — but some colleges will go as far as to provide legacy students with tailored advising programs, alumni-only recruiting events, and even special admissions counselors dedicated to finding ways to admit them. Some schools offer even more bizarre perks. For instance, Harvard has its notorious Z-list, in which selected students, mostly children of wealthy alumni, are guaranteed deferred acceptance to the university even before they apply.

The specifics about who gets preferential treatment depends mostly on the university. Some colleges only provide preference to children of former undergraduates, while others extend the preference to grandchildren of alumni, children of graduate students, or even nieces and nephews.

The legacy advantage pays off for these students: Ivy League schools and other top colleges typically admit legacy applicants at 2 to 5 times the normal acceptance rate at their respective schools. But the phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the colleges with ivy-covered gates. In fact, more than 90 percent of top tier colleges say they consider legacy status during the application process.

Legacy preference policies have a tarnished history, do little good for the colleges that employ them, and effectively serve as a form of affirmative action for the wealthy. Yet they remain stubbornly difficult to get rid of.

The Shameful Legacy Of Legacy Preference

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice of giving legacy students an advantage in the college admissions process has a undignified past — one that’s deeply rooted in socioeconomic discrimination and antisemitism.

Most of the nation’s elite colleges originated as places for wealthy, Protestant families to send their offspring to co-mingle with other well-off young adults. Elite colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were dominated by wealthy students who were often admitted despite poor academic achievement. Students at these elite colleges were often more concerned with upper-class socializing than with academics, so much so that Princeton University President Francis Landey Patton would proclaim Princeton to be “the finest country club in America.”

By the early 1900s, two things started happening at the same time: Elite colleges began to raise their own standards of admissions, and they also began to see a significant increase in applications from the Jewish community.

These new Jewish applicants were scoring higher on entrance exams than many of the students from traditional backgrounds, and were consequently being admitted to elite colleges in droves. The percentage of Jewish students at Harvard, for instance, tripled between 1900 and 1922. In response to this trend, traditionally-served portions of the elite became uncomfortable at best and antisemitic at worst. Student societies began banning Jewish students from joining, and elite colleges started to become concerned that the uptick in Jewish enrollment could deter traditionally-served populations from matriculating. Indeed, elite colleges that chose not to attempt to restrict Jewish enrollment, such as the University of Pennsylvania, saw a decline in their traditional upper-class applicants.

While Dartmouth College is much more diverse today than it has been in the past, it still continues to give preference to legacy applicants nearly 100 years after it became the first major college to adopt the practice. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
While Dartmouth College is much more diverse today than it has been in the past, it still continues to give preference to legacy applicants nearly 100 years after it became the first major college to adopt the practice. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The increased competition for admission meant that, if they accepted students based on merit alone, colleges would end up rejecting legacy applicants while admitting Jews and other historically underrepresented classes. Instead, colleges started to give explicit preference to legacy students.

In 1919, Dartmouth established one of the nation’s first comprehensive college application processes, and in doing so explicitly stated that “all properly qualified sons of Dartmouth alumni and Dartmouth college officers” would be admitted. Though the introduction of legacy preference at Dartmouth College likely wasn’t directly aimed at reducing Jewish enrollment, according to education historian David O. Levine, other schools soon followed Dartmouth’s example for less-than-noble purposes.

In 1922, Princeton University adopted a comprehensive admissions process similar to Dartmouth’s. Admissions statistics recorded after this change show a significant drop in the number of accepted Jewish students, and members of Princeton’s administration weren’t shy about explaining why this happened. The chairman of Princeton’s Board of Admissions claimed the switch to comprehensive evaluation was to solve the university’s “Jewish Problem.”

Three years later, Yale mandated that legacy applicants only had to score a 60 on the school’s entrance exam, while everyone else needed to score at least a 70 to be considered. Internal memos from the time period reveal that Yale administrators were keenly aware that their admissions policies, including legacy preferences, would reduce the number of Jewish students at the school. In 1926, Harvard adopted similar admissions policies, which renowned legal thinker Alan Dershowitz would later call “the perpetuation of past discriminatory patterns.” These discriminatory sentiments soon spread to other elite colleges, further preventing Jewish students from being admitted to top schools.

The chairman of Princeton’s Board of Admissions claimed the switch to comprehensive evaluation was to solve the university’s ‘Jewish Problem.’

After World War II, changing social attitudes towards Jews, coupled with the democratization of higher education, began to dissuade many Americans from supporting the most blatant forms of discriminatory admissions policies. Elite colleges began to feel the heat. By 1964, Princeton’s admissions director, E. Alden Dunham, said that the legacy preference was “becoming increasingly difficult to live with,” and began the process of gradually rolling back Princeton’s massive legacy preference. Meritocracy seemed to be on the rise.

However, alumni of elite colleges weren’t thrilled with the new push for changes in admissions policies, and they began to fight back.

In the 1960s, when Yale hired a new dean of admissions who made it clear he wanted to bring more diversity to Yale’s student body and scale back the preference for legacy applicants, the school’s alumni went ballistic. The Yale Alumni Board created a special committee to investigate the admissions changes, alumni donations plummeted significantly, and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. (class of 1950) ran for a spot on the Yale Corporation, promising to fight any attacks on the legacy preference. In 1968, Buckley wrote that “a Mexican-American from El Paso High School with identical scores on the achievement tests, and identically ardent recommendations from their headmasters, had a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from St. Paul’s School,” as if this was a bad thing.

Buckley lost his election to the Yale Corporation, but his candidacy resulted in the ousting of the admissions dean and, more importantly, the end to any major effort to scrap legacy preferences at Yale.

The events at Yale scared many college administrators across the country. While legacy admissions policies have faced several legal and political challenges since the 1970s, the vast majority of top-tier colleges still consider legacy in the admissions process. Recently, legacy preference has been the subject of renewed public scrutiny as colleges become increasingly more selective, but this heightened scrutiny hasn’t prompted a significant wave of change.

An Unjustifiable Practice

Given that legacy preference is so widespread in the United States, you would think the practice might have at least a few significant advantages that would justify colleges continuing to admit students this way. However, upon closer examination, the few arguments that do exist in support of keeping legacy preferences fall flat.

One of the stubbornly persistent arguments for considering legacy in the admissions process is that it supposedly helps to encourage large donations from wealthy parents and alumni. But there isn’t much data to support this assumption.

Texas A&M dropped legacy preferences in 2004, yet continues to successfully raise funds and inspire school spirit. CREDIT: Jalen Jones, AP Images
Texas A&M dropped legacy preferences in 2004, yet continues to successfully raise funds and inspire school spirit. CREDIT: Jalen Jones, AP Images

At many universities that have eliminated legacy preference, alumni have still continued to donate in large numbers. For example, Texas A&M, which did away with legacy preferences in 2004, saw its fundraising levels skyrocket in the years immediately following the decision. The university’s capital campaign raised $1.5 billion from 2003 to 2007, significantly surpassing its stated fundraising goal of $1 billion. A 2009 study found that the University of Georgia and six members of the University of Califorinia system, all of which had recently dropped legacy preferences, actually witnessed an increase in donations. And many esteemed private universities, including MIT, Caltech, and Cooper Union, enjoy some of the healthiest endowments in the nation despite not considering legacy status in admissions decisions.

Plus, empirical studies show that, when controlling for family wealth, there is no significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference and total alumni giving at top universities.

On top of that, the legacy advantage provides a huge boost to students who don’t necessarily need it. “This is a preference that preferences the already advantaged,” observed Richard Kahlenberg, a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and a prolific writer on higher education issues.

When controlling for family wealth, there is no significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference and total alumni giving at top universities.

Legacy students are disproportionately wealthier and whiter than the average college applicant. A 2005 study reported that half of legacy applicants to selective colleges came from households in the top quartile of family income, meaning their parents made about $100,000 or more per year. And while only 60.9 percent of Harvard’s Class of 2015 self-identified as white, 93.3 percent of legacy students identified as being of Caucasian descent, according to the 2015 Harvard Crimson senior survey.

The policy isn’t even very popular. Most Americans don’t support giving preference to legacy students. The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 75 percent of Americans say they are opposed to legacy being considered in the college admissions process.

While widespread in the United States, legacy preferences in higher education are almost nonexistent throughout the rest of the world. According to David Golden, the only other nation where legacy preference is found in higher education is Japan, where 70 percent of students attend private universities. In Western Europe, where family-related privileges are often heavily entrenched, legacy preferences are unheard of. Even in nations with hundreds of private colleges, such as India, legacy status is not considered by admissions committees.

So, Why Do Colleges Still Give Preference To Legacy Applicants?

Given that legacy preferences were designed to discriminate against Jews, are ineffectual in providing material and academic benefits to colleges, are maintained to benefit the already-privileged, are disliked by a substantial majority of Americans, and continue to disadvantage hundreds of thousands of hard working college applicants each year, why are they still around?

One reason is rather obvious: Alumni are supportive of the preference. Even if alumni are hesitant to contribute more money as a result of legacy preference, the idea that their sons and daughters could attend their alma mater evokes feelings of pride and nostalgia.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Consider Stanford University, for example. In 2016, the Princeton Review ranked Stanford as the nation’s No. 1 Dream College, and this desirability has consequently translated into the nation’s lowest admissions rate for a non-specialized four-year college. For the 2016 admission cycle, Stanford accepted only 4.69 percent of its applicants, which prompted conflicting public reactions and a memorable satire by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. 58 percent of Stanford’s applicants that year had a high school GPA of 4.0 or above, yet only 7 percent of applicants in that category received an acceptance letter, according to the Stanford Admissions Office.

Across almost every indicator in the admissions process, Stanford is extremely selective. Except for one. The acceptance rate for legacy applicants is estimated to be three times higher than the acceptance rate for the overall applicant pool.

Many of Stanford’s prominent alumni are supportive of the idea of creating a family legacy there. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is one of them. In her 1982 commencement speech at Stanford, her alma mater, she told graduates she hoped they “would be lucky enough to have [their] children attend this paradise on earth… that we call Stanford.” One can imagine that O’Connor is not the only Stanford graduate to look back fondly on her college years and wish her offspring could enjoy the same experiences.

“[My daughter’s] presence at Stanford has been an enormous gift to me. It has rekindled my love of the University and revived memories long dormant, both good and bad,” observed one alumnus in a 2013 issue of the Stanford Magazine.

Even if alumni are hesitant to contribute more money as a result of legacy preference, the idea that their sons and daughters could attend their alma mater evokes feelings of pride and nostalgia.

The U.S. News and World Report college rankings also provides a significant incentive for colleges to keep legacy preferences intact. According to the publication’s methodology, factors that influence overall rankings include retention rate (22.5 percent), student selectivity (12.5 percent), financial resources (10 percent), and alumni giving rate (5 percent), all of which could be effected by a policy of legacy preference. Since many colleges still insist that their alumni giving rate is affected by legacy preference, keeping the practice for the purpose of boosting ratings is effectively seen as a must for competitive institutions.

The federal government has yet to act on this issue — which is perhaps unsurprising given the amount of legacy beneficiaries in high levels of government.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry are legacy parents, and several U.S. senators are either legacy parents or were legacy students themselves. If legacy preferences are ever presented before the Supreme Court, some Justices who have personally benefited from legacy policies, such as Stephen Breyer, may be less willing to strike the practice down.

Even though legacy preference might keep students locked out of the gates of our nation’s most selective colleges, students like Livie Jacobs will still strive for a bright future. Livie herself is planning to attend Hamilton College in the fall.

“I just went to the accepted students day and fell 100 percent in love with the place,” she said. “I am barely containing my excitement for the day I head to Hamilton and begin my college experience.”

Bryan Dewan is an Intern at ThinkProgress. The legacy acceptance rate at Colgate University, where he attends college, was 51% for the class of 2019, nearly twice the university’s overall acceptance rate.