Why ‘Legacy’ Admissions Value Ancestry Over Merit
Students battle for college slots while family ties assist a select few — fair or foul?
High school seniors are applying to colleges as we speak — and many are waiting by the mailbox or logging onto university portals to find out if they’ll attend the school of their dreams next fall.
Mom and Dad, you might not want to mention “legacy” students — or dwell on the issue (unless, of course, it works in your favor).
The college admissions process is a meritocracy, we assume: Those students who have earned a slot in college through their hard work and unwavering focus rightfully attain it. College competition is fierce and the stakes are incredibly high; and college admissions is a zero-sum game with each admitted applicant taking a spot that could have gone to someone else.
The reality is that one group has a significant advantage: legacies.
The legacy system started in the 1920s as a means of keeping “socially undesirable” students (mainly Eastern European immigrants) out of prestigious universities, as detailed in Jerome Karabel’s book “The Chosen.” But rather than dismantle such a discriminatory program over the years, colleges have retained the legacy admissions status — in some ways, it’s now an integral part of the process.
Legacy admissions has been described as “affirmative action for the wealthy” by one Westchester County, New York, high school guidance counselor — a system based on money. Alumni are kept happy by admitting their kids, and their “thank you” is a donation to their alma mater.
A Westchester County parent told LifeZette that legacy admissions is “a privilege for the advantaged.” Rather than paving his or her own path, a legacy candidate benefits from the accomplishments of parents and grandparents. As a result, a legacy applicant frequently takes a spot from an equal or better qualified candidate who may have had much more to overcome.
Recently, a Westchester County high school senior applied to an Ivy League school with impeccable credentials, only to be deferred — and watch her classmate with legacy status take the spot.
“Even though I have a 3.9 [GPA] and a 1480 [SAT score] and take the most challenging course load, the legacy got in with a 3.7 and a 1360. It’s so upsetting,” the student said.
This is not a rare occurrence; legacy applicants frequently take spots from more deserving students.
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As detailed in a recent article in The Harvard Crimson, legacies are admitted to Harvard University at a rate of approximately 30 percent, which sharply contrasts with Harvard’s overall undergraduate acceptance rate of around 5 percent. Legacy status is also a major perk at the University of Pennsylvania. According to The Pennsylvania Gazette, legacies are admitted at a rate of nearly 40 percent. The only catch is that Penn urges such candidates to apply “early decision,” which binds these students to attend the university.
There has been a legacy backlash over the past few years. Some 75 percent of people oppose the practice of giving the offspring of alumni a boost in the application process, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
As the public becomes more aware of the advantages that come with being a legacy applicant, people have become more determined to eliminate legacy admissions altogether. These legacy benefits are significant: On a 1600-point SAT scale, status as a legacy is worth an extra 160 points, according to Princeton University’s Dr. Thomas Espenshade. And a recent study revealed that a student’s chances of acceptance to a highly selective college go up by as much as 45 percent if he or she has legacy status, noted the Economics of Education Review.
As one Westchester parent said, “Rewarding birth rather than merit is extremely unfair.” Several elite colleges seem to be listening to such objections.
To some judges, legacy preferences violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, and the California Institute of Technology do not offer preference to legacy applicants. Every applicant has an equal opportunity — students are admitted on what they have done, not on their parents’ or grandparents’ coattails.
In his book “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” Richard Kahlenberg details how some question the constitutionality of legacy admissions. But legacy preference has been litigated just once in federal court. After Jane Rosenstock’s application to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was rejected in the 1970s, Rosenstock claimed that her constitutional rights were violated by a variety of preferences — including legacy status.
In 1976, however, the courts upheld legacy admissions in Rosenstock v. Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina, stating that legacy preferences were acceptable, as they translate into additional funds for colleges.
To some judges, legacy preferences violate the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause. While the amendment was ratified to protect African-Americans, it extends to what Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court referred to as “preference based on lineage.” To Justice Stewart, individuals should be judged on their own merits, not by what their parents did.
In spite of the efforts to overturn legacy admissions, the reality is that it is likely to remain part of the college landscape for decades to come. In a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Fisher v. University of Texas, which upheld affirmative action, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “A university is in large part defined by those intangible qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness … Deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics.”
This ruling provided colleges and universities across the country the autonomy to decide for themselves what constitutes these “intangibles.”
As a result, the college admissions playground is likely to remain lopsided for years to come. But at least we are now aware of the rules — and can play accordingly.
Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years.