How Essential Are Legacy Admissions in College?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a male and female students walking in a university hallway discussing legacy admission

How Essential Are Legacy Admissions in College?

In the world of college admissions, there’s a buzz about “legacy admissions.” This hot topic has stirred debates among educators, students, and society. Legacy admissions have a history and have changed over time. This blog explores what they are, where they came from, what they mean today, and why they’re still around. Let’s dive in!

What are legacy admissions?

What are legacy admissions? The practice of giving preferential treatment in the admissions process to students whose parents are graduates of the institution is known as “legacy admissions.” Recently, they have been the subject of a great deal of news coverage.

There has been a rise in recent years in the number of people demanding that universities reconsider the benefits of the practice, and there is evidence that some colleges are beginning to comply with these demands.

The history of legacy admissions

The history of legacy admissions has a checkered past. Around the turn of the last century, the legacy system was implemented at prestigious schools specifically to discriminate against Jewish applicants. In 1922, Dartmouth College established a policy regarding legacy giving. After that, Yale University opened its doors in 1925.

Front view of Yale University

During that time period, the primary concern of institutions in the Ivy League was to ensure that they retained their reputations as aristocratic strongholds. For many years, for instance, the elites of Boston’s most prominent families sent their children to Harvard University.

Sociologist Jerome Karabel asserts that Harvard and other prestigious colleges actively worked to limit the number of “social undesirables” on their respective campuses after they started admitting students from a wider variety of backgrounds, in particular Jewish students.

According to what Karabel disclosed in his book titled “The Chosen,” which was published in 2006, by the 1930s, about one-third of Yale undergraduates were children of persons who themselves had graduated from Yale.

It was no coincidence that at the time, James Noyes, who served as the dean of admissions at Yale, said in a memo that “the [admissions] Board accords all conceivable priority to the offspring of Yale men.”

Even more explicitly and to the public’s attention, Princeton expressed its preference for legacies. In a pamphlet distributed to alumni in 1958, it was said that “regardless of how many other boys apply, the Princeton son is judged on this one question: can it be predicted that he will graduate?” If that’s the case, he’s in.

How do legacy admissions work?

How do legacy admissions work? The directive to accept legacies originates at the very top of the institution, with the presidents and trustees in control of the fundraising. Therefore, while it is the responsibility of admissions officers to deal with the specifics of decisions regarding who is admitted to a college, presidents, deans, and boards of directors are responsible for formulating the overarching policies that govern who is admitted and what a college is looking for.

Then, how do admissions departments work with students who come from legacy families? There are a variety of strategies, but tagging and secondary review are two popular approaches. Students who apply to the university as legacies will have a notation added to their profiles indicating this fact, which will be taken into consideration along with the other factors.

2 female students and a make student standing next to each other having a conversation about legacy admission

It is unknown how much weight and consideration each college gives to these pupils; however, it is apparent that, in many instances, they are taken into account.

Secondary review is a process that is used not just for legacy students but also for individuals who the school has decided to be noteworthy, notable, or worthy of recruiting and admitting. This is typically reserved for legacy students, children of faculty members, and students who are the first in their families to attend college.

However, certain colleges may decide on a case-by-case basis that other students are deserving of this privilege. After the admissions decisions for all of the other applicants have been essentially finalized and these pupils have previously been given a preliminary reading and review, they are read through and evaluated once more in the context of the entire class.

Because of this, there is no guarantee that any particular candidate in this review pile will have a better probability of being accepted; nonetheless, those who are moved on to the secondary review have a better likelihood of admission in comparison to their peers overall.

Why do legacy admissions still exist?

Many prestigious colleges argue that legacy admissions are essential to maintaining high levels of alumni donations. But why do legacy admissions still exist?

William Fitzsimmons, who serves as the dean of admissions for Harvard College, has consistently defended the university’s practice of giving preferential treatment to the offspring of alumni and contributors. During a deposition that was taken for an affirmative action complaint that had been filed against Harvard, he stated that legacy preferences were “vital to the well-being of Harvard.”

A building inside the Harvard campus where legacy admission is still being practiced

During the course of the trial, Fitzsimmons elaborated by saying, “It is crucial for the long-term strength of the institution to have the resources we require.”

However, research has shown that there is no connection between the preferences of legacy donors and the earnings of universities. According to the findings of yet another study, legacy admissions regulations have very little to no impact on alumni donations.

A new line of defense for legacy admissions has emerged in recent years, and it centers on the value that legacy students bring to the overall community of the institution. Logan Powell, who serves as the dean of admissions at Brown University, brought attention to the fact that legacy admissions play a significant role in providing existing students with mentoring and internship opportunities.

Additionally, Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, has brought attention to the contributions that alumni’s children make to the school community. He claimed that it was beneficial to have students who “have more familiarity with Harvard” alongside “those who are less familiar” with the institution.

It is important to note that diversity was used as a defense for legacy admissions. When arguing in favor of affirmative action, which is a policy that encourages the participation of historically marginalized groups, diversity is typically brought up as an argument.

However, it appears that certain educational institutions are preparing to use the term “diversity” to defend legacy admissions, which contributes to the maintenance of the status quo and ensures that elites continue to be present on campus.

After a century of legacy admissions, there is a lot of evidence indicating that rich white graduates and their children are the most likely to benefit from the practice. In addition, there is not much evidence to support the idea that such policies should be maintained.

However, legacy admissions are primarily a concern for a relatively limited number of highly selective universities, and even then, only for a relatively tiny percentage — often between 10% and 15% — of the total number of students admitted to those universities.

Which colleges have legacy admissions?

Which colleges have legacy admissions? According to some estimates, around three-quarters of the top 100 institutions in the United States take a candidate’s legacy into consideration when making admissions decisions.

According to the findings of a poll conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup in 2018, institutions have varying policies regarding the weight that legacy carries in the admissions process. These policies range from not at all to serving as a tiebreaker to providing preferential consideration.

The more competitive the school is, the more impact legacy has on admissions decisions. During the applicant screening process, legacy is taken into consideration by the vast majority of Ivy League and NESCAC schools. These are the following:

As do a great number of other institutions, such as:

However, not all prestigious colleges place a significant emphasis on heritage. Among the institutions that do not participate in the program are Caltech, Cooper Union, MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington.

Some educational institutions, such as Stanford University and the University of North Carolina, are recognized to place a high priority on legacy, but they are only known to do so for primary legacy candidates. Some schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, only look at a candidate’s legacy when they make an early admissions decision.

Checking to see if a school asks about your legacy status on the application is a fast way to identify whether or not the school places high importance on the legacy. (The question is one of several that can be found on the Common Application.)

Naturally, you should also conduct a search for the term “legacy” on the website of the college, as well as speak with your school counselor and any other individuals who are familiar with the admissions procedure of the institution.

How does legacy admission status impact college applications?

It is common practice for colleges to make public statements to the effect that legacy status is nothing more than a tiebreaker between applicants of equivalent caliber. The term “putting your thumb on the scale” is used rather frequently.

So, how does legacy admissions status impact college applications? According to a study that was conducted using data from thirty of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions, primary legacy students have an astounding 45 percentage point higher chance of being accepted into a highly selective college or university than non-legacy children have.

The “pick-me-up” percentage for secondary legacies is lower, at 13%. According to the findings of one study, having legacy status is equal in admissions value to gaining 160 points on the SAT.

The legacy advantage may be seen on the campuses of prestigious colleges and universities nationwide. In addition to Harvard, other Ivy League schools such as Penn (which will admit 22% of early applications to the Class of 2025) and Brown (which will accept 10% of the Class of 2025) also reveal a significant number of legacy students.

Despite its meager admissions rate (3.98% for the Class of 2025), Princeton has been known to accept over 30% of legacy applicants.

But the issue that needs to be answered is, to what extent does being from a wealthy family increase your chances of getting into college? How much of a role does it play in evaluating the application? The response is contingent on a number of factors, including the following three primary factors:

  • The vitality of your relationship to your heritage
  • The university that you have high hopes of attending
  • The competitiveness of your application to the university of your choice

Keep in mind that assessing how well you would fit in at each of the schools on your list is the most effective strategy to increase the likelihood that you will be accepted. The legacy status of a family is merely one factor to consider. For most people, it is not necessarily the essential factor when deciding which college is the best option for them.

a group of four students with two male and two female studying together

If you want help navigating the treacherous waters of college admissions, feel free to reach out to us here at AdmissionSight. We have over ten years of experience guiding students through the competitive admissions process to get accepted to the top universities in the world. Contact AdmissionSight right away for a consultation. We would love to be with you in your admissions journey.



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