Title: It’s Time to Axe Legacy Admissions

Elite institutions have been using legacy admissions to fill out their classes for a century, but should they continue?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

College admissions often feel unfair. Elite schools expect us to have perfect grades, dozens of extracurricular activities, test scores in the 99th percentile, and unique personal struggles that we’ve managed to overcome. If a student fails to display their overwhelming perfection and confidence without seeming unlikable or “too intense,” he or she rakes in mountains of rejection letters and ends up at their ninth-choice school. Many students, therefore, spend their entire time at high school studying and taking on every extracurricular possible in the hopes of gaining an advantage in the college admissions process. In reality, however, the largest advantage is not given to the kids with the best grades, letters of recommendation, or awards, but to the kids whose parents went to that college.

Legacy admissions were first introduced at Dartmouth in 1919. The original policy read, “All properly qualified sons of Dartmouth alumni and Dartmouth college officers’ would be admitted.” This practice was put in place specifically to decrease the number of Jewish students at Dartmouth because Jewish applicants rarely had fathers who had attended Dartmouth. This practice was soon adopted across all the Ivy League colleges, with the Princeton Board of Admissions specifically stating that this policy was used to resolve the school’s “Jewish problem.” The use of legacy admissions in the early 20th century ensured that the populations of elite institutions remained largely white, Protestant, and wealthy.

Since their creation, legacy admissions have been used as a way to give well-off white students a leg up in the admissions process. Legacy students are five times more likely to get admitted to Harvard, and 36 percent of Harvard’s class of 2022 are legacy students. These students are certainly qualified, but it is unjust that between two equally qualified students, the student whose parent(s) went to a certain college is given an advantage.

People cannot control what family they are born into. Yet elite universities judge students in part based on their family pedigrees. Under this system, many of the best students are at an inherent disadvantage when put up against the children of a university’s alumnus. Even though we have varying degrees of control over our course load, grades, and extracurriculars, no amount of studying can change our family name. It is incredibly frustrating to know that family legacy could be the missing piece in a deserving student’s application, but it is even more infuriating when we realize who is benefiting from this system.

Legacy admissions overwhelmingly help the wealthy. In Harvard’s class of 2022, 46.4 percent of legacy admits came from families with an annual household income over $500,000. This statistic is deeply unsurprising because Harvard’s big selling point is how successful their alumni are: the average starting salary for a Harvard graduate hovers around $80,000 and 10 percent of their graduates are making more than $250,000 by the time they are 32. The fact that these students gain an advantage in the admissions process is completely unnecessary and goes against everything Harvard claims to stand for.

The first part of Harvard’s mission statement reads, “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” A commitment to the transformative power of education implies that people are getting transformed. It conjures up imagery of a school welcoming students from all walks of life and preparing them for the highest positions in society. However, legacy admissions contradict that image in every possible way. A Harvard education is not quite as “transformative” if many of the students already start off rich. Harvard and other elite universities are essentially giving a platform to those at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid while they claim to be “educators of the people.”

When confronted with these criticisms, elite universities employ two main arguments in defense of legacy admissions. They claim that legacy admissions increase donations so they can give more financial aid to low-income students. But it has been repeatedly proven that legacy admissions have no clear effect on alumni donations. More frequently, they argue that legacy admissions help build a strong alumni community. This claim is true, as it makes alumni more likely to send their kids to their alma mater.

That being said, legacy admissions also severely limit who is welcome in that community. Legacy admissions put working-class students, the children of immigrants, and people of color at a significant disadvantage. If elite schools want their alumni community to be insular and homogenous, then legacy admissions are a great way to do that, but otherwise, their focus should be on diversifying their alumni community, not closing it off.

At the end of the day, legacy admissions have few true benefits and plenty of clear disadvantages. They started as a tool to keep certain students out of top schools and are now used to keep certain students in. They give the children of alumni an extra pat on the back for being born while providing everyone else another hoop to jump through. Legacy admissions essentially tell the public that while schools like Harvard claim to be for everyone, they still reserve a few spots for those at the top. This unfair policy keeps plenty of qualified students out of elite schools, and it is about time we eliminate it.