Getting Rid of Legacy; Let Students Qualifications Speak for Themselves

Harvard University, one of the most highly esteemed institutions in the U.S., is known to be an extremely selective school with an acceptance rate of 4%. While the chances of being accepted into this Ivy League are low, there is something that can increase a student’s likelihood of receiving an acceptance letter by 30%: their legacy status. A legacy is someone with a family member who is an alumnus of the institution they are attending. Historically, the practice of legacy preference began in the 1920s as a way to maintain spots for white Anglo-Saxon protestants. With discriminatory origins, it is unsurprising that the prioritization of legacy students today continues to cause concern.

Why Are Legacy Students Prioritized?

According to Vox, there are two main reasons why colleges use legacy admissions: one, to boost their yield rates, which refers to the percentage of students who enroll in the institution after being accepted; and two, to increase alumni engagement and funding. For Harvard, the second reason mainly reflects their motivation for accepting legacy students. In a 2017 report by a Harvard committee tasked to assess potential revisions to the admission process, it reads that Harvard alumni offer “generous financial support” which the committee believes is “essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning.” As expressed in this same report, if legacy preferences were to be removed, the Harvard committee was worried that it would “diminish this vital sense of engagement and support” from alumni. 

Regardless of the reason, legacy preferences have consequentially created racial discrimination among applicants as, according to a 2019 study by Peter Arcidiacono, an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, 70% of legacy applicants are white. The use of the practice has systematically privileged the white and wealthy students. While many are dissatisfied with the unfairness of legacy admissions, institutions can consider a student’s legacy status in their likelihood of being accepted because of their ability to execute affirmative action. That is until a recent Supreme Court ruling changed admission policies.

Down With Legacy Preference

Just last month, the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in higher education by ruling that the race-conscious admission policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the Constitution. As a result, institutions that use legacy preference have become the next target of state legislators and civil rights groups. Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a nonprofit organization from Boston, has taken that next step by filing a suit against Harvard for its admissions system allegedly violating the Civil Rights Act. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of LCR, says this about legacy preferences: “Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit, and should have no bearing on the college admissions process.” President Biden has also spoken about his concerns regarding legacy admissions and believes it only “(expands) privilege instead of opportunity.” But were those students any more qualified than non-legacy students? According to a study conducted by MIT Sloan Professor Emilio J. Castilla and University of Colorado Assistant Professor Ethan J. Poskanzer, they found that legacy applicants were, on average, “not significantly more qualified or better students than non-legacy candidates.”

Who Practices This?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only 27 of the top 100 schools in the U.S. have either never used or stopped using legacy preferences. Schools that are open for legacy admissions include top institutions such as the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University. However, because of the recent growing criticism of legacy preferences after the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, many top institutions such as Wesleyan University and Carnegie Mellon have eradicated their use of legacy admissions. 

Life After Removing Legacy Preference

David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), commented that their removal of legacy admissions in 2014 has “changed (their) class greatly” as JHU became “more diverse on many, many dimensions”. As shared in this TIME Magazine report, this shift has led to a rise in first-generation students from 8.1% in 2013 to 17.8% in 2021. But is Harvard University right to fear that stopping legacy preference can lead to losing donations? Surprisingly, JHU has not suffered financially since eliminating the legacy preference in admissions. In fact, alumni donations have “steadily grown” since stopping their legacy preference.

Written by Jess R.



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