Should Legacy Status Matter Anymore in College Admissions?

last days of legacy
Should Legacy Status Matter in College Admissions?Getty Images

“I grew up with Yale as my frame of reference.” So recalls one graduate whose father attended the elite institution on the GI Bill. As a kid, this man—for the sake of this story we’ll call him Alex—grew up driving to New Haven to tailgate before football games at the Yale Bowl. “That was where my parents entertained.” Alex attended a prestigious private secondary school in New York, where he did very well. And so, he said, “I didn’t even think about it: I’m going to Yale.

“It was more naivete than entitlement, really. It was the early ’80s. I never seriously thought about going anywhere else.” Thirty years later, when Alex’s eldest child applied to Yale, he similarly assumed the school was an option. His child was a strong student at a top high school who excelled on the SATs. And he and his wife (also a Yale grad) had been dedicated alums, sending in regular donations to the school, albeit at a modest level. So when his child’s early application was not accepted, “it was utter shock,” Alex says.

“I was forced to confront the fact that I had internalized this belief that my family, across generations, had a deal with Yale, which was: We will provide the brains, the talent, the whatever, and you will take us. I didn’t feel that we had let them down on our end. They just said no anyway.”

yale male cheerleaders
Yale cheerleaders at a football game, circa 1925.George Rinhart - Getty Images

Alex’s story is a cautionary tale as families confront the college admissions landscape of 2023, with its single-digit acceptance rates and shifting enrollment priorities. These changes are being felt particularly strongly by middle-class and upper-middle-class parents like Alex, who are seeing what they felt was their one, last strand of leverage—legacy status—being rendered ineffective. Especially for students who don’t have any asterisks next to their names, such as recruited athlete, donor’s kid, award-winning oboe player, or first generation student.

“I just think that room for quote-unquote normal people has gotten squeezed to the point that students like my child don’t get in anymore,” Alex says.

Yale, in fact, still technically honors so-called legacies—14 percent of the class of 2025 are the children of Yale alums—by giving those applicants extra consideration when they apply. But legacy rates of admittance at colleges across the board are significantly lower than they were a decade ago, and some schools, such as Amherst and Johns Hopkins, have done away with the practice altogether.

george bush and george w bush at yale
Yale student (and legacy) George H. W. Bush carrying son and future Yale student, George W. Bush, at Yale in 1947.Historical - Getty Images

The case for legacies, which dates back to the 1920s and ’30s, when giving a “tip” to alumni kids was seen as a way to limit the number of Jews and Catholics entering the hallowed, Protestant halls of brick-and-ivy institutions like Harvard and Prince­ton, has been promulgated by elite colleges for years. And not only as a Darwinian social experiment. Just as a winning college basketball team drives both marketing and community pride for an institution, so does having generations of families who know all the words to “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” Colleges nurture this school spirit by sending out email blasts for alumni weekend events and cruise trips and wine-tastings, drumming up love and excitement that is then funneled into donations and other acts of support: volunteering to interview prospective students, hosting parties and events for local alums in Atlanta or Decatur. The cycle goes on, as does the gush of activism and giving.

“Growing up as a legacy, I was very acutely aware of my dad’s love and pride in Georgetown at a young age,” says one alum. “I used to watch him do alumni interviews on the weekends, and it helped me develop a huge kinship for Georgetown. I wanted to go.”

Many years later this alum—whose sibling also attended Georgetown and whose child will likely apply—now does those interviews herself, hosts a class party every four years, and helps fundraise for the university. “We’re not buying buildings, but we give a lot to the school,” she said. “I breathe Hoya.”

How legacy preference actually works is a decidedly fuzzy area in the already fuzzy world of “holistic” admissions. Admissions experts frequently say that being a legacy is a kind of tie-breaker for a kid competing with an equally qualified non-­legacy kid, the message being that only already qualified legacies get a leg up. But what about a legacy applicant with GPA in the 3’s (or, god forbid, 2’s) whose parent donates significant amounts of money? Would that kid fall into the legacy or the big donor category? Admissions deans rarely speak openly about the subject, and the most data that has been spilled on the matter came about from an affirmative action lawsuit filed against Harvard in 2014. Indeed, aside from colleges and universities in California, which passed a law requiring them to report legacy figures in the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal, universities typically “report nothing,” says James Murphy, a higher education policy analyst at Education Reform Now. “It’s an incredibly opaque area of college admissions, which is part of what makes it deeply unfair.”

Because legacy admissions have disproportionately favored white students over the years, the practice has come under more severe scrutiny in the wake of BLM and the social and cultural eruptions that have rocked the nation in recent years. As colleges and universities have made diversity on campus a top priority and worked to increase the number of first generation and underrepresented minorities at their schools, legacy has become a dirty word.

amherst college
In the fall of 2021 Amherst announced it would no longer take lineage into account when weighing applications.Boston Globe - Getty Images

The dominoes are already starting to fall. In the fall of 2021 Amherst, where approximately 11 percent of each class is made up of legacies, said the school will no longer take lineage into account when weighing applications. The move came months after Johns Hopkins announced that it had ­quietly stopped considering legacy back in 2014.

More recently, in spring 2022, the faculty senate at Tufts University passed a resolution to end legacy preference in the admissions process, and a study is now underway to assess the implications. A (very) small number of other top schools, including MIT and CalTech, have been legacy-blind for years, but the majority of top schools still reward alums by favoring their children. In the affirmative action lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University, which claims that the university discriminates against Asian-American applicants, it was found that Harvard admitted a far greater number of legacy students—33.6 percent—than non-legacy students, who had a chilling acceptance rate of 5.9 percent, over a six-year time frame.

The issue is now being debated at the very highest levels of justice and may well come to a head this summer. The Harvard case and a similar lawsuit launched at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made it to the Supreme Court last fall, and in arguments SFFA said that ending legacy admissions would be one way to help colleges achieve racial diversity without relying on race conscious admissions. Many expect the conservative-leaning court to decide to end affirmative action in higher education. If that happens, colleges—particularly private, elite schools, which account for the vast majority of universities that rely on legacies (only 6 percent of public universities do)—will have trouble justifying why they are tipping the scales in favor of a population of mostly white, privileged kids.

supreme court hears cases considering affirmative action in higher education
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases this year regarding the consideration of race as a factor in college admission—decisions that may significantly change how colleges approach legacy preferences.Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

“Legacy preferences in my view are very hard to defend under any circumstances,” says Richard Kahlenberg, editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. “But once the Supreme Court tells universities they can’t use race in admissions, the pressure to eliminate the practice becomes that much greater.”

The possibility that we may be in the twilight of legacy preference in elite admissions is causing a frisson of fear in many parents. After all, in today’s hypercompetitive college admissions landscape, any bit of leverage is seen as critical, making legacy status a kind of “super power,” according to Eric Eng, founder and CEO of Admission­Sight, a college admissions consultancy in Cupertino, California.

As one Ivy League graduate and parent puts it, “You have a huge applicant pool when you’re talking about the top schools, and everybody’s class president, everybody’s got a great GPA. So it’s like, ‘How am I going to distinguish myself? Yes, if I have Native American blood or if I take the 23andMe test and find out, oh my god, I’m part whatever. What’s the thing that’s going to raise me a little bit above?’ ”

The question is, if legacy preference really does become a thing of the past, how much does it matter? Alex’s Yale story is a sobering reminder of the waning power of legacy today. And as for angry alums snapping shut their pocketbooks—Alex says that when his child was rejected, “I stopped giving, effective immediately”—how much do universities with multibillion-dollar endowments need $400 a year from their graduates? As another Ivy League parent who is a minority puts it, “Schools don’t need your middle-class donations when they’re getting major gifts from billionaires.” Johns Hopkins may not be favoring alums’ kids, but in 2018 alumnus Mike Bloomberg (neither of whose daughters attended Hopkins) gave the school $1.8 billion.

michael r bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg donated $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins—his alma mater, but not his kids’.JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado - Getty Images

So why all the fuss? Aren’t there bigger things to worry about when it comes to equity in admissions, like athletic recruitment, which accounts for a sizable number of VIP slots in each freshman class, and early action/decision, which has widely been determined to favor students of means? How much of getting rid of legacy is just zeitgeisty PR?

Speaking on the phone last November, Matthew McGann, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, says that when Amherst made its announcement about ending legacy preferences, “we wanted to send a very loud signal that this is a place that cares about students who are talented, regardless of their background. That this isn’t a place where it’s about who you know or about special preferences as much as it is about the kind of education and the kind of community that we’re trying to build on campus.”

He goes on to point out that getting rid of legacy preference fits in with the school’s original mission. “Amherst was founded in part to educate the indigent, which is, I think, an important part of our story.”

That story has, at times, had holes poked in it. In 2017 the New York Times reported that the median family income of an Amherst student was $158,200. But McGann, who arrived at the school in 2018, says the school is devoted to “broadening access and opportunity,” which is what led to the legacy decision. He adds that Amherst has also greatly expanded financial aid to low- and middle-income households.

tufts university campus
In spring 2022 the Tufts University faculty senate passed a resolution to end legacy preference in the admissions process, and a study is now underway to assess the implications.Boston Globe - Getty Images

Amherst’s “loud signal” came as schools across the country began, in the wake of BLM, strenuously brandishing their number of first generation and diversity admits. Some, such as Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton, simultaneously swept their minuscule acceptance rates under the rug by not publishing them (during the admission cycle), in an attempt to debunk the notion that they are, in fact, institutions that close their doors to the majority of the populace.

It was timely press for the schools, which are striving as desperately as their applicants to differentiate themselves. But in the case of eliminating legacy preference, James Murphy argues it’s about more than creating buzz. “It’s an incredibly important move to indicate both to applicants and to the country, which increasingly distrusts higher ed, particularly at highly selective institutions, that you’re a fair player.”

Howard Wolf, vice president for alumni affairs at Stanford, once said that admissions time is “the point at which the university is most vulnerable in its relationship with its alumni.” This is a polite way of saying that schools are very invested in keeping alumni happy and, the inference is, supportive. Stanford reported that 16 percent of the class of 2023 are the children of alumni—just a hair less than the class’s 18 percent of first-gen students.

“It’s a position of fear,” Murphy says. “By using legacy preference and giving some tip to someone, it’s fewer phone calls you’re going to get from alumni [saying], ‘I cannot believe you missed my child!’ ”

At Amherst, McGann says, it took two years of “thorough analysis and discussion” to arrive at the decision to end legacy admissions. “There are some alums who feel like this means that we care about alumni less, which is not the case,” he says. “There are many alums who are very proud of this decision—that even though this may work to their disadvantage in some ways, to see that their alma mater is continuing to lead on being a place of opportunity is something that makes them very proud.”

McGann says it’s too early to see the effects on giving yet, but Johns Hopkins has stated that it has seen no correlation between ending legacy preference and alumni donations. Other data does not necessarily support the opposite idea, that favoring legacies equates to more giving. When Texas A&M dropped legacy preference in 2004, alumni giving dipped, but then it soared from $61 million to $92 million between 2004 and 2006.

Anecdotally at least, this theory supports the notion that schools aren’t working as hard as they once did to keep alumni content, at least those who aren’t billion-dollar donors. Eric Eng, the admissions counselor, reiterates that being a legacy is more of a thumb on the scale than a free pass. “First and foremost I consider the academic and extracurricular profile” of a legacy applicant, he says. “It’s not just a 4.0 and a 1600 SAT score. You’ve got to have placed at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. You have to have won a Scholastic Art and Writing Award. You need a lot more.”

The Ivy League graduate rolls her eyes at colleges’ attacks on legacy admissions. “They’re coming after it with a pitchfork because it’s an easy target. But what about donors’ kids? What about the kids of members of the board of trustees?”

Not to mention sports kids. At Harvard recruited athletes make up 1 percent of the applicant pool but more than 10 percent of each incoming class. And yet in the discourse over admissions equity, sports is a kind of third rail no one seems eager to touch.

Murphy reasons that at least athletes bring a skill to the table, in contrast to legacies, who “have been given a privilege that they did not earn,” he says. “An athlete has done something to earn that advantage and has performed incredibly well in some sport that the college thinks is worth fielding and takes some pride in, that it thinks is part of its mission. Most American colleges think having inter­collegiate sports is an important part of the work they do.”

ben ticknor and fay vincent playing baseball
Colleges have historically weighed many factors, including athletic ability, in admissions decisions. George Rinhart - Getty Images

Athletic teams, with the exception of country club sports like squash, crew, and fencing, also often boast the kind of diversity numbers colleges crave. And they play into one of the main sweet spots of college life and culture: tradition.

Yet as the identities of universities undergo dramatic reconfigurations thanks to the social reckoning underway, just how tightly can any institution cling to tradition, even the ones it holds most dear? It’s a topic Amherst’s McGann is willing to muse on. “What does it mean to have this tradition and to adapt it to modern times?” he says. “That’s a question we have to move through. And when different parts of our mission and traditions come into friction, that’s something we have to figure out how to move through.”

As for Alex, his child is attending another elite liberal arts college in the Northeast. “Now I walk around Yale with my wife and kids, and it seems it’s not going to be part of our future,” he says. “It’s only part of our past.”

“It’s fine. My kids are discovering other places. Yale has a lot of memories, there are nice things about it, but there are lots of nice places out there. In a way, I feel liberated.”

This story appears in the February 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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