What You Should Know About Legacy College Admissions

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of “legacy” in the college admissions process. What does it mean to be a legacy student at a college or university, and what role does legacy status play in the college admissions process?



As new college admissions statistics continue to be released this year, it’s very likely to reveal that this was one of the most competitive admissions cycles yet with record-low acceptance rates, especially at elite institutions. This phenomenon has reignited the debate surrounding legacy status in the college admissions process and whether or not it skewers the process of holistic, merit-based admissions practices. It’s still a common practice though. At the U.S.’s most selective schools, it’s a given that around 10 to 20% of students will be a legacy.


As the controversy over the fairness of college admissions practices continues, many students and families are wondering — what are legacy college admissions, and how will it affect my own college application in the coming years?


What are legacy college admissions?


Legacy admissions, or the formal and informal practice of favoring descendants of alumni of a given school, has been a part of college admissions for a long time. In 1992, a survey found that, of the top seventy-five universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, only the California Institute of Technology had no legacy preferences at all.


Although it’s not heavily promoted, it’s usually easy to find out whether or not a school practices legacy admissions — particularly if they don’t, as is the case with MIT and Amherst. And while many schools break down how they consider different parts of their applications on their admissions websites, it’s not always clear how heavily legacy status is weighed in a holistic evaluation of an application.


However, some studies have shown that it could double and possibly even quadruple a student’s chances of admission. With the lessening focus on quantitative application components like standardized testing, these more subjective aspects come even more into play when making admissions decisions.


Why do legacy college admissions exist?


The practice of legacy college admissions began a century ago in the 1920s. Many Ivy League schools explicitly sought to preserve their “elite status” by showing outright favor to the children of alumni, almost all of whom were white male students in the upper class of society. They weren’t shy to admit it either — in 1958, a Princeton alumni brochure stated: “No matter how many other boys apply, the Princeton son is judged on this one question: can he be expected to graduate? If so, he’s admitted.”


This meant that the number of legacy students at these schools only grew, creating even more generations of legacies. For example, by the 1930s, nearly a third of Yale undergraduates were the children of Yale graduates (and were all male students, given that Yale College did not admit women until 1969). Thus, the origins of legacy college admissions are inherently exclusionary based on class, race, and gender, and even if affirmative action and other corrective policies have attempted to diversify student bodies at these institutions in the last few decades, the impacts of this exclusion can still very much be felt on campus.


How do legacy college admissions affect non-legacy students?


Again, it isn’t fully clear what happens behind the closed doors of all admissions offices at top schools that practice legacy college admissions. However, it is fair to assume that if there is a choice between two students with a similar background and academic/extracurricular profile, a student who is a legacy will be given preference over a non-legacy student. Luckily, no two students are really the same, so this choice is, in reality, probably not as clear-cut. Still, with as many as 60,000 students applying to Harvard this year and similar numbers at other top schools, every kind of advantage matters.


Unfortunately, there really isn’t much non-legacy students can do to avoid this issue, other than excelling at the highest level possible to increase their chances of admission. And if you do end up getting rejected from your top choice and they practice legacy college admissions, know that the decision may be a result of factors outside of your control, including the number of legacy students applying. It doesn’t undermine the hard work you’ve put into your high school career by any means.


The Case Against Legacy Admissions


In recent weeks, there have been numerous pieces published advocating for an end to legacy college admissions, citing how it actively disadvantages other students and sullies the ethics of the college admissions process on the whole. The U.S. Congress even introduced a bill last month that would cut off legacy students’ access to federal funding for education. The lawmakers who wrote the bill argued that “basing university admissions decisions on family connections served to exacerbate racial and economic inequalities.” There is significant evidence to support this claim, and many schools have responded by decreasing or eliminating their focus on legacies when choosing who to admit, foreshadowing a possible end to the practice.


So, what is the argument against legacy college admissions? Simply put: the practice of legacy college admissions negatively disadvantages students who aren’t legacies, particularly students from underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students. It gives a non-merit-based leg up to certain students in an already incredibly competitive process. That is not to say that alumni and their children are in the wrong by benefitting from it — rather, it is reflective of the systemic inequality and inaccessibility of American higher education, which is the larger issue that needs to be addressed.


The Case for Legacy Admissions


There is one caveat to this discussion that many recent alumni of top schools have raised. Over the past few decades, many top schools have actively sought to increase the diversity of their student body by admitting more international and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students.


Now, many of those alumni have their own children who are applying to college, meaning that this is the first time many non-white, non-male, and non-American students have been extended the privilege of being a legacy at competitive schools. While the practice is unfair to all students on the whole, would it be fair to extend the privilege to students who have been actively barred from elite schools for so long? Much in the same way that affirmative action seeks to address racial and ethnic disparities at universities, can legacy college admissions be used in a productive way that does actually help level the playing field?


The issue of legacy college admissions is quickly evolving and changing the college admissions process, so it’s important to stay aware of how it could impact your own college application over the coming years.


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