What Percentage of Harvard Students are Legacy?

July 28, 2022
By AdmissionSight

What Percentage of Harvard Students are Legacy?

What Percentage of Harvard Students are Legacy? Students who have at least one parent who graduated from Harvard or Radcliffe, the university’s former sister school, are considered “legacy students” by the admissions office at Harvard University. This “tip” has been given to legacy students for many years.

Before a federal judge ordered Harvard to disclose admissions data for the previous six years, it was officially unknown how big that “tip” was or what its characteristics were. This revelation was made just before a federal trial that had just come to a successful conclusion in which Harvard was accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants.

In many respects, the expert analyses of Harvard’s data that were prepared by both sides of the lawsuit disagree with one another; however, both sides agree that legacy preference can be a significant factor. And this is not something that is unique to Harvard.

According to the results of a survey conducted by Inside Higher Education in 2018 with admissions directors from both public and private institutions, 42 percent of private institutions and 6 percent of public institutions consider legacy status as a factor in admissions.

Harvard building surrounded by trees.

When competing applicants at Columbia University have qualifications that are on par with one another, the legacy status may provide a “slight advantage.” Exactly the same thing happens at the University of Virginia as well.

According to the common data set used by each institution, in addition to Stanford University and the University of Alabama, the following schools also take legacy into consideration: Auburn University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Indiana University in Bloomington, and the University of Alabama.

In contrast to Harvard, however, it is not entirely clear how other schools choose to factor legacy into their admissions decisions.

Today, Harvard and other prestigious universities in the United States say that they use legacy status in the same way that they use race or other student characteristics: as a means of cultivating a healthy and diverse campus community and alumni network.

Critics argue that the practice has a tendency to favor wealthy white students and that eliminating it could help make room for students who have more to gain from obtaining an elite degree.

The Percentage of Legacy Students Accepted into Harvard

Students put in a lot of effort throughout their time in high school intending to get into an Ivy League university. But even if they are putting in an incredible amount of effort to break through the single-digit entry rate barriers, they might not realize that the odds are even further against them than they already were. The treatment of legacies is significantly more favorable than that of other things.

Even though we do not know the exact number of spots that are set aside for legacy students each year, we can tell you that legacy students typically make up a disproportionately large portion of each and every incoming freshman class.

Harvard students walking in the school campus.

What percentage of Harvard students are legacy? The class of 2022 was over one-third legacy, which indicates that one-third of admitted freshmen (an increase from the previous year) had a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or another relative who had attended Harvard before them. This could be the case if the relative attended Harvard before them.

Only 5.1 percent of applicants were selected for admission on average across all years from 2014 to 2019. During the same time period, over 33 percent of legacy applicants were accepted between the years 2014 and 2019.

Even though surveys indicate a marginal decrease in legacy enrollment between the classes of 2021 and 2022, it is important to keep in mind that overall, prospective legacy students have acceptance rates that are five times higher than those of other applicants.

As a result of an affirmative-action lawsuit that was filed against the university in 2014 alleging that Harvard’s admissions practices discriminate against Asian-Americans, the scope of legacy admissions has been subjected to a significant amount of scrutiny at Harvard. This has primarily been the case regarding legacy admissions.

Additionally, the lawsuit brought attention to the legacy admissions practice that is used by Harvard. According to the lawsuit, between the years 2007 and 2016, on what percentage of Harvard students are legacy of background exceeded the number of students with a first-generation background.


In 2016, Harvard enrolled its first freshman class that was predominantly comprised of students from other racial or ethnic groups. Even though schools all over the United States, including those in the Ivy League, are ostensibly doing more to promote diversity and inclusion in their hallways and classrooms, legacy practices appear to continue to foster support for white applicants who are also wealthy.

The results of the survey showed that 23.4% of white respondents were also legacy students for the class of 2022. However, a paper that was produced by Duke University and published provided an even more in-depth look into the matter. According to the findings of the study, between the years 2009 and 2014, 43% of white applicants to Harvard were athletes, legacies, or children of donors and faculty (noting that children of faculty made up a very small sliver of the pool).

According to the findings of the study, only one-quarter of them would have satisfied the requirements for standard admission on their own and been allowed to enroll.

Students with legacy status are also increasingly drawn from suburban communities. Consider, for instance, the graduating class of 2018. 37.3 percent of legacy students accepted into the university came from families with an annual income of more than $500,000. This number increased to 46.4 percent for the class of 2022.

What is a Legacy Student?

What is a legacy student? A person is said to be a legacy student if they have a member of their immediate family, typically a parent, who attended the same college. During the review of applications, these prospective students are given additional consideration. However, some colleges may extend legacy status to grandchildren or even siblings of alumni. This is not the norm, however, as the majority of schools only count the legacy boost for applicants who had at least one parent attend the institution.

There are a lot of schools that give legacy status to applicants as part of the admissions process because they believe that giving legacy status to applicants increases loyalty to the school, which in turn makes alumni more likely to give money to the school.

Group of University students lounging on the grass.

Students with a family history of attending the institution are also more likely to accept an admission offer. The enrollment rate for legacy students at Princeton was close to 89 percent, while the enrollment rate for all other admitted students was 69 percent. A higher yield (that is, the percentage of admitted applicants who agree to enroll) raises an institution’s selectivity and helps schools more accurately predict the sizes of their incoming classes. A higher yield also helps students.

The incoming classes of 2023 at Princeton, Yale, and Dartmouth each have between 12 and 14 percent of students who come from legacy families. The percentage of legacy students enrolled in Stanford’s class of 2023 is currently at 16 percent. And at Harvard, legacy admissions make up an astonishingly high percentage of the class of 2022.

How Significant Is the Role of Family Name in College Admissions?

At some universities, the legacy status of the applicant is a significant factor in the admissions process. A study that was conducted in 2011 found that legacy students “had a 45 percent greater chance of admission” compared to other applicants at the top 30 schools in the United States.

Students who come from prestigious families are given significant advantages when applying to elite schools like Princeton. Only 5.5 percent of people who applied to Princeton for the class of 2022 were offered admission, but one-third of legacy applicants were sent acceptance letters.

A teenager with her family smiling at the picture.

Students with family connections have a better chance of getting into Stanford, which is widely regarded as one of the most competitive educational institutions in the United States. At the same time, the odds of legacy applicants receiving an admission offer at Harvard are five times higher than the odds of non-legacy applicants receiving an offer.

Having legacy status is beneficial in other ways as well. One admissions officer reviews each non-legacy application at Stanford, while two officers look over each legacy application. Legacy applicants have their applications reviewed twice. This indicates that there are more opportunities for legacy students to stand out from the crowd.

Legacy preference can take a few different forms, depending on the public school. Applicants from out-of-state who are the children of previous students may be granted in-state status during the admissions process, which increases their chances of being accepted.

In 2018, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow provided an explanation as to why the institution admits such a large number of legacy students. “Their applications are typically very well put together, and they have extensive familiarity with the academic institution.

Therefore, it is a self-selected pool, which, when compared to the overall applicant pool, appears to be extremely impressively high-quality across almost all metrics.”

The Origins of the Legacy Admissions Program

The use of legacy status in college 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, there were 21 Jewish students enrolled at Harvard, which was 21 percent of the total student body. A. Lawrence Lowell, who was the president of the university at the time, was concerned that an excessive number of Jewish students would cause white Protestants to withdraw their applications to Harvard.

Aerial view of Harvard University.

As a direct consequence of this, the educational establishment devised a brand new admissions policy, which ushered in the era of legacy college admissions by giving weight to factors such as character and family history.

Students from low-income families are at a disadvantage when it comes to legacy admissions.

When legacies are given priority, applicants from lower-income backgrounds are less likely to be accepted, despite the fact that these applicants may have a greater need for what elite schools provide, which includes a great education, connections, and resources such as scholarships for tuition and grants for unpaid internships.

Already, students from low-income families are grossly underrepresented in these educational establishments. Pell Grants are a form of financial assistance provided by the federal government to undergraduate students from families with low incomes. On average, only 16 percent of undergraduate students attending Ivy League schools are awarded these grants. On the other hand, forty percent of first-year students in the United States are recipients of Pell grants.

What percentage of Harvard students are legacy are typically wealthy and white, two demographic groups that already make up a disproportionate share of the student body at many colleges, particularly the more competitive of those institutions. However, those schools are in a financial position to accept more students from families with lower incomes.

According to the findings of the study, high achievers from the working class who attend prestigious schools have a greater chance of graduating and moving into the middle or upper classes after their education. It would “go a long way toward advancing equity in this country — by giving students who come from financially challenging circumstances a far greater chance of succeeding” if more of them were given the opportunity to pursue higher education.

The Legacy System can be considered “Outdated”

In recent years, prestigious universities like Harvard and Yale have accepted a greater number of students from families with lower incomes. The American Talent Initiative was signed in 2016 by 30 different educational institutions, including all of the Ivy League schools. This initiative “aims to attract, enroll, and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students” by the year 2025.

More than ninety percent of students admitted to legacy schools are white. Many people view legacy admissions as an exclusive system that gives an advantage to applicants who already have privileges.

Students of color do not receive nearly the same level of assistance from legacy policies as do students of white ethnicity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only between 19 and 27 percent of Latino/a, Black, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students have a parent with a bachelor’s degree, in comparison to the more than 50 percent of white students who have such a parent.

Policies that primarily benefit white students are also likely to exclude students of color from enrollment at prestigious educational institutions. Because there are only so many spots available in each class, giving preference to legacy applicants necessitates rejecting otherwise qualified applicants who did not come from a family of alumni.

Many schools that award legacy status will argue that applicants for legacy status must meet the same stringent requirements as other applicants. The state of California passed a law in the aftermath of the 2019 Varsity Blues scandal that requires universities to report the number of legacy students who “did not meet the institution’s admission standards that apply to all applicants.”

The university has reported that none of its admitted legacy students meet the requirements. According to a report published by Stanford, “an existing family connection or historical giving to the university means nothing in the process” if an applicant to Stanford is not highly competitive academically in that applicant’s application.

Despite this defense, non-legacy students tend to have higher grade point averages and scores on standardized tests than legacy students do on average.

In the midst of a devastating pandemic, Harvard’s endowment reached a record-breaking high of $53.2 billion this year. In the most recent fiscal year, which came to a close in June of 2021, the University of California recorded a budget surplus of $283 million. There is not another institution of higher learning anywhere in the world that even comes close to matching the enormous amount of financial resources that Harvard has available to it.

As a result, it is unreasonable for Harvard to continue to give preference in the admissions process to students with family connections. It goes against the spirit of meritocracy and slows down the process of social mobility to give advantages to the children of alumni. An institution such as Harvard ought to devote a greater amount of resources to democratizing higher education and promoting equity, rather than further entrenching the inequality that already exists there.

The alumni of Harvard can play a significant part in ensuring that the university implements a more equitable admissions process. In light of the fact that all Harvard alumni ought to have an interest in seeing a more just admissions process, they must exert pressure on Harvard to do away with its legacy admissions and have the question of what percentage of Harvard students are legacy a thing of the past.

This could be achieved through initiatives such as “Leave Your Legacy,” which is a national campaign that aims to bring together alumni to pledge against donating to universities that use legacy admissions. The alumni must take a firm stance against the unethical practice of legacy preference, which disproportionately hurts students who are the first in their families to attend college, come from low-income families, and are not white.

If a significant number of Harvard graduates conclude that they will not contribute financially to the university until legacy admissions are eliminated, the institution will have little choice but to abandon its discriminatory admissions policy.

In a society that values meritocracy and the prospect of climbing the social ladder, elitism is perpetuated by the existence of private universities like Harvard that are not open to the public. Eliminating legacy preferences in admissions is a good step in the right direction toward making higher education truly accessible to everyone, but there is still a long way to go before we get there. In light of this, Harvard ought to take the lead of other educational establishments and do away with its legacy admissions policy; otherwise, it will soon find itself on the wrong side of history.

At AdmissionSight, we know there are a lot of other questions students and their families may have about the admissions process. Feel free to set up an appointment today with AdmissionSight to answer any and all of the questions you have. Reach out today to learn more about the admissions process.


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