Accepted by birth: legacy preferences in college admissions

Stanford, Princeton, Columbia —these are just a few of the many dream schools that students can never seem to stop talking about. More so than ever before, college admissions are getting increasingly competitive and selective, with Stanford’s admission rate at five percent in 2016. Underneath the debate over racial inequality in colleges, an equally perverse form of affirmative action—legacy preferences, the practice of preferring on applicants with familial ties to the university—continues to flourish with comparatively little public attention.

The practice of legacy preferences was first adopted by Princeton University in the early 20th century. According to the Consumer News and Business Channel, universities first “introduced a preference for legacies to exclude less-desirable applicants, such as immigrants.” While no longer blatantly xenophobic today, legacy preference continues to be discriminatory.

The main motive for legacy admission is to increase donations for schools. Universities believe that parents will be more likely to donate money if their child is favored in the admissions process. However, at universities such as the University of Calif., Berkeley, where legacy preferences are not weighed into the admissions process, the university’s annual report on private support has found no evident decrease in donations among alumni. With the supposed correlation between the amount of funding and legacy preference debunked, there is no viable reason for schools to keep them.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that the edge that legacy gives to alumni is far too substantial. Higher-education expert Michael Hurwitz published a study in the Economics of Education Review that found an alumni’s child had a 45 percent higher chance of getting into the college over their close contenders. Accepting legacy students, even when they are less qualified over those who are non-legacy, will unconditionally benefit the already privileged upper class while blocking capable individuals from having the contingency of attending prestigious colleges.

“Legacy preference is essentially affirmative action for rich and white students, most of whom are already given a plethora of privilege in their college admissions. White families have had generations of opportunity to access this privilege. Ultimately, ending legacy admissions will allow colleges to increase awareness and tolerance,” Senior Prerna Agarwal said.

Thomas Espenshade, a sociologist from Princeton University, found that in his study covering 10 colleges that endorsed legacy admissions, being a legacy was the equivalent to a 160 point boost (out of 1600) on the SAT. With such a large disparity, it is very difficult for a student with a non-legacy application to overpower someone with an equally promising application that has legacy status.

For underprivileged applicants, legacy preferences are a barrier to attaining a higher education. Legacy preferences create a cycle of wealthy and privileged families attending prestigious colleges. The New York Times reports that “at Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown, as well as 33 other colleges, there are more students from families in the top one percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” Accepting a majority of students from the most wealthy concentrates that wealth and privilege and prevents students from less-privileged backgrounds from obtaining a high-quality education.

“With legacy admissions, schools become exclusive clubs that devalue the importance of higher education. The bigger the difference that legacy status makes, the wider the rift between the rich and poor will be,” Junior Jennifer Cheng said. 

Colleges must abolish legacy preferences to promote diversity and inclusivity for all students. A student’s future should be decided based on what they are capable of, not what they are born with.