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A Deep Dive Into Legacy and Donor Admissions for Elite Colleges


July 08, 2023

I'm sure you all have heard of the name "Jon Wang" all over social media. The 18-year-old who sued Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina) claimed he didn't get into all the colleges he applied to because of affirmative action. Shortly afterward, the Supreme Court took down affirmative action stating that it was "unconstitutional" and that college admissions should be based on "merit" and the "experiences of the individual." That being said, I know that there are a lot of people who are truly upset about this decision.

Many people also claim that overturning this decision is a good thing and that things will finally be "equal." In light of the situation, many people have started asking the true question that needs to be answered: What about legacy applicants? Although many people are cheering the end of affirmative action under the guise of fairness, there still is and always has been a huge leeway for legacy applicants. So in this article, we will talk about legacy admissions and their impact on the college admissions process.

via Unsplashed


Legacy admissions, a practice that gives preference to the children of alumni during the college admissions process, has a long and complex history. Its origins can be traced back to the early days of higher education in the United States. The practice began in the late 1920s when elite universities, such as Harvard and Yale, sought to preserve their social and financial standing by prioritizing the admission of students from prestigious and wealthy families.

These institutions aimed to cultivate a sense of tradition, loyalty, and continuity within their student bodies. The intentional nature of legacy admissions is evident in the historical records of prestigious universities. For instance, during his tenure as Yale's dean of admissions, James Noyes expressed in a confidential memo that the admissions board prioritized the sons of Yale alumni. This deliberate preference for legacies aimed to maintain a sense of tradition and loyalty within the university. Similarly, Princeton University was more explicit about its favoritism toward legacies. In a 1958 alumni brochure, it boldly stated that the primary criterion for a Princeton son's admission was whether he could be expected to graduate, regardless of the number of other applicants. These public declarations further solidified the practice of legacy admissions and reinforced the significance placed on familial ties within the admissions process.

As time has progressed, legacy admissions became deeply ingrained in the culture of Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities, perpetuating a cycle of privilege and reinforcing social hierarchies. Now we have our "Aunt Becky's" and "Felicity Huffman's" reminding us of these unfair circumstances constantly by wiring money to a "college admissions coach" that gets their children into these schools without displaying any of the "merits" that the Supreme Court claims that college admissions should be based on.

In many of these donor cases, the children didn't even know their parents were pulling the strings on all of this, resulting in over 50 people being prosecuted for fraud due to rigging the college admissions system in their favor.

These historical incidents have now culminated in the present, where activists have taken legal action against Harvard University for its legacy admissions policies, and the preferential treatment given to legacy admits. Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England. The suit alleges that Harvard University's admissions system violates the Civil Rights Act.

This legal action represents a growing push against legacy admissions and reflects the ongoing debate surrounding fairness, diversity, and equal opportunities within the college admissions landscape. In addition to the lawsuit challenging legacy admissions, a distinct campaign is gaining momentum. This campaign urges alumni from 30 prestigious colleges to withhold donations until their respective schools end legacy admissions. Spearheaded by the advocacy group Ed Mobilizer, this initiative specifically targets Harvard University and other Ivy League institutions. By targeting alumni's financial support, the campaign aims to exert pressure on these schools to reevaluate their admissions practices and promote fairness and equal opportunities in the selection process.

via Unsplashed

Final Thoughts

Honestly, is the solution to promoting true equality and fairness in the college admission process getting rid of legacy and donor admission? In my opinion, absolutely! For years, kids from wealthier backgrounds have been getting away with stealing open spots from other hard-working applicants simply because their family member goes there.

The practice of admitting students solely based on legacy and donor status, though it may be influenced by financial support and longstanding relationships, is fundamentally unfair to students without those connections. This approach creates an inherent disadvantage for minority students. It also contradicts the notion of equality that opponents of affirmative action claim to seek. If people want to get rid of affirmative action, then they need to get rid of legacy and donor admissions as well to truly level the playing field. Or else it just proves that those who are against affirmative action, especially wealthier individuals who benefit from legacy/donor admissions, simply want to push the idea that it's okay to get rid of the one rule that tries to prevent racial discrimination in various aspects of the education system and workforce.

Overall, legacy and donor admissions raise valid concerns about fairness and equal opportunities for all students. The scrutiny and legal challenges faced by prestigious institutions underscore the growing push for transparency and reevaluation of admissions processes.

As the conversation evolves, it becomes increasingly clear that striking a balance between tradition and meritocracy is essential to ensure a truly inclusive and equitable educational environment. Ultimately, the future of legacy and donor admissions lies in the hands of these institutions as they navigate the changing tides of public opinion and strive to create a more just and accessible higher education system.

If you want to learn more about the affirmative action case and its origins, don't be afraid to check out this article: What You Need to Know About the Supreme Courts Decision on Affirmative Action. Please share your opinions about this matter in the comments below!

Williana Serve
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Williana is currently a freshman in college. She likes to learn new things especially involving Law & Advocacy. When she’s not doing schoolwork, she can be found watching TikTok, YouTube, or reading.