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An Update on the Legacy College Admissions Debate

The debate surrounding legacy preferences in the college admissions process has been heating up in recent weeks amidst the latest Supreme Court decisions and the release of a new study covering the subject.

Back in April, we here at H&C released a piece covering the practice of preferential treatment of children of alumni in college admissions, particularly at elite institutions. However, the debate around the controversial topic has heated up, especially amidst the Supreme Court decisions about affirmative action and student loan debt relief. In addition to these decisions, several prominent private colleges have publicly ended their practice of legacy admissions, spurring further questions about the intent and impacts of the practice. 

Then, in early July, a group called the Lawyers for Civil Rights group filed a lawsuit against the governing body of Harvard University, alleging that the school gives preference to children of donors and wealthy alumni, especially if they’re white students. 

After the lawsuit was filed, a new study was released that investigated the relationship between socioeconomic status and admission to elite schools, ultimately finding that “children from families in the top 1 percent were 34 percent more likely to be admitted than the average applicant,” according to the New York Times. And they found that legacy status was the largest advantage wealthy students could have in this process at top private schools.

Especially at a time when elite universities and most private colleges across the nation are boasting about the diversity of their student body, both the lawsuit and the study beg the question of how fair the admissions process has become in recent years. While many schools claim to separate the financial aid process from the application evaluation process, it can still be obvious to an admissions officer in a student’s application that they come from a large amount of privilege, especially for legacy students. 

In this piece, we break down the Lawyers for Civil Rights lawsuit, the results of this new study, and the updates in the debate around legacy preferences in college admissions at elite colleges.

Photo credit: Essence

Lawsuits Challenging Legacy Preferences in Elite Colleges

In the month following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on affirmative action, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into whether or not Harvard’s legacy preferences discriminate against students of color. This announcement came shortly after the Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint on behalf of the Chica Project, ACEDONE, and the Greater Boston Latino Network, requesting a review of the treatment of legacy applicants and its impact on applicants with no alumni or donor connections.

These suits challenge the fairness of legacy preferences, which can be seen as privileging wealthier applicants over more qualified applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Critics argue that these preferences prevent universities from truly achieving diversity in their student bodies and instead reinforce existing social stratification.

The data is in favor of the plantiffs’ argument. A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2019 showed that over 43% of white students at Harvard are considered ALDC — athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff — applicants. Despite the Harvard Admissions Office’s strong insistence that they seek to enroll the most diverse class possible, regardless of applicants’ financial status, the actual student body does still reflect a preference for privileged students and white applicants in the college admissions process.

Plus, there is strong support for an end to the practice — for instance, a Pew Research Center survey in 2022 found that 75 percent of those surveyed believed legacy status should not be a factor in college admissions. Some of the most high-profile critics of legacy admissions include President Joe Biden, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Senator Tim Scott.

The results of these legal battles could have far-reaching implications for how college admissions processes operate at elite institutions across the country. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the head attorney on the Harvard case, expressed a desire to take the fight nationwide in a comment to The Daily Princetonian

“In light of the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling in the affirmative action case, we see a high likelihood of success… to end not just donor and legacy preferences at Harvard, but also at other colleges and universities across the country,” he said.

Photo credit: The Boston Globe

New Study on Legacy Preferences in College Admissions

In late July, a new study was released by Opportunity Insights that was conducted by economists Raj Chetty, David J. Deming, and John Friedman and investigated the relationship between socioeconomic status and admission to elite schools using anonymized data from private and public colleges, income tax records, and standardized testing scores from 1999-2015.

They identified three factors that drive the college admissions advantage for students from high-income families at a selective university:

  1. Preferences for children of alumni; and,
  2. Weight placed on non-academic ratings, which tend to be higher for students applying from private high schools that have affluent student bodies; and,
  3. Recruitment of athletes, who tend to come from higher-income families.

One of the main takeaways from the findings was that students from high-income families, specifically those in the top 1%, were 34 percent more likely to be admitted than the average applicant. Even after accounting for higher standardized test scores or more polished resumes than non-legacy students due to more access to resources, white college applicants who are children of wealthy alumni still have the most advantage in the college admissions process at elite institutions. 

Furthermore, the study found the following: “Children from families in the top 1% are twice as likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college (Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Chicago) as those from middle-class families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.” However, the study found children from high-income families did not have a comparable advantage at flagship public universities.

The researchers argued that these findings demonstrated how legacy preferences can have a disproportionate impact on who gets admitted to elite universities, privileging wealthier applicants, especially those who are somehow connected to alumni donations, over more qualified applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Additionally, they suggested that this could help explain why there is often so much homogeneity among student bodies at elite universities. Coupled with the Supreme Court’s ruling on race-based affirmative action, this may lead to an overall decrease in diversity in each incoming freshman class at private universities over the next few years. Bigger picture, this could result in more privileged students continuing on to higher-paying careers and extending the benefit legacy and donor preferences to their children, perpetuating “the intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity.”

To quote Susan Dynarski, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in a comment to The New York Times: “What I conclude from this study is the Ivy League doesn’t have low-income students because it doesn’t want low-income students.” Legacy admissions allow private universities to exercise this bias through their admissions decisions, the study would argue.

Photo credit: The Boston Globe

Schools Ending Legacy Admissions Policies

A month after the Harvard lawsuit was filed and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, Wesleyan University announced it would no longer consider family connections, such as alumni status or major donations from applicants’ parents, when making admissions decisions.

Wesleyan president Michael Roth said that legacy status has historically played a “negligible role” in their admissions process, but he still believed it was important to formally end the process in order to cultivate “free speech, mutual respect, and values of inclusion” and “a sense of belonging for everyone on campus.”

They joined a cadre of schools, including Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Amherst College, Harvard College, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago, who have implemented similar policies in recent college admissions cycles. Some schools have offered alternatives to outright ending the practice, such as Georgetown, which announced in 2016 that they would offer the same consideration legacy applicants receive to the descendants of enslaved people. 

The aim of these changes is to reduce the influence of privilege on college admissions. By removing the consideration of legacy status, these universities are attempting to level the playing field and prioritize applicants based on their individual merits and accomplishments. Still, several prestigious institutions refuse to give up the process, citing the intergenerational community and financial support the practice offers schools.

As more universities adopt this stance, it is likely that other schools will also move away from legacy admissions in order to remain competitive, as was the case with the removal of many standardized testing requirements in recent years.

It remains to be seen how these changes will affect the composition of each incoming freshman class at private universities. Especially coupled with the rising cost of college and the competitive landscape of financial aid and scholarships, these changes in college admissions might not make a massive impact on diversifying student bodies if students are still dealing with other barriers to ensuring complete educational equity.

Photo credit: George Ruhe/AP

How Would the End of Legacy Preference Policies Impact Future College Applicants?

The end of legacy preference policies, like many of the other recent changes in college admissions, could have a significant impact on future college applicants.

These changes could potentially open the door to more diverse and economically disadvantaged students who may not have had access to higher education in the past. Without legacy admissions factoring into decisions, universities will be able to focus more closely on other aspects of an applicant’s profile, such as academic performance and extracurricular activities.

At the same time, ending legacy admissions could also create a sense of competition that is difficult for many students to overcome. With these preferences removed, applicants may be forced to compete with those from wealthier backgrounds who can afford better test preparation and more expensive college application fees. This could lead to some individuals being left behind due to their socioeconomic circumstances.

Ultimately, the end of legacy preference policies could have both positive and negative consequences on education reform in the long run, but it is too early to tell what the full impact will be. It is important for universities to ensure that these changes are accompanied by additional initiatives to support underrepresented students in college admissions and beyond.

Photo credit: New York Post

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