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Why Legacy Admissions at Top Universities Needs to End


September 27, 2023

Following the Supreme Court's ruling against race-conscious admission to universities in June this year, attention has now turned to another long-standing practice - legacy admissions. This policy refers to a preference given to applicants related to an alumnus, usually a parent or grandparent. The process is considered to provide certain students a competitive advantage, so its continued use remains controversial.

How it all started

Legacy admissions was first introduced in the United States in the 1920's. At that time, universities saw a significant rise in applicants from ethnic backgrounds as a wave of immigrants entered the country. As immigrant students became increasingly qualified, elite schools needed to find a way to retain places for wealthy Protestant students. Through the legacy admissions process, these highly prestigious schools could favor relatives of alumni to maintain spaces for white, middle-class students successfully.

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Highly prestigious Ivy League college Dartmouth (ranked 13th in the US in 2022) was the first to implement a legacy admission policy in 1922. Along with many other esteemed colleges, including Harvard and Yale, Dartmouth continues to accept students in this way 100 years later. Today, statistics show that the share of legacy students in Ivy League schools in the Class of 2023 ranges from 12-16.7%. A recent study showed that these applicants are nearly four times more likely to be accepted despite equal test results as their peers.

Lately, legacy admissions have received heavy criticism as more speak out for their abolishment.

Recently, the Supreme Court decided to end affirmative action after 50 years of the policy's use in college admissions. Affirmative action aims to tackle the underrepresentation of ethnic minority students in US colleges, particularly highly prestigious ones. However, the Justices deemed the policy unconstitutional, arguing that it created a racially discriminatory admissions process.

So, if affirmative action has been overruled on these grounds, legacy admissions should be, too. Some may argue that there is an even stronger case for abolishing legacy admissions than for affirmative action.

Affirmative action is designed to promote a more racially diverse student population by favoring students from under-represented backgrounds. On the contrary, legacy admissions only benefit those already advantaged, wealthy applicants. While affirmative action may be discriminatory, its purpose benefits society by promoting equal access to education. Legacy admissions, on the other hand, may be seen as both discriminatory and exacerbating educational inequality.

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Why do legacy admissions still exist?

One reason legacy admissions persist is that most students come from wealthy backgrounds, so they do not require university financial aid. Furthermore, alumni often give large and frequent donations - admitting relatives likely increases financial contributions. This hugely benefits colleges, who can now re-invest the significant sums of money to improve student facilities.

Some have also argued that legacy admissions help build community within the college. Through having alumni relatives, legacy students share a strong common ground, which could create a better connection between students.

It is also believed that using a legacy admission policy is an effective way to choose between students whose applications display similar achievements and capabilities. In this case, legacy students are almost always favored as colleges feel they have a stronger affinity to the school's history and values. However, critics have disputed that it is highly unlikely to have identically accomplished applicants.

Finally, giving preferential acceptance has not proved disadvantageous to college exam results. Legacy students still receive outstanding grades, so admitting them does not damage college rankings or their reputation for educational success.

Why should legacy admissions end?

One of the main reasons legacy admissions should be abolished is that their existence supports flawed values for current and prospective students. Colleges should espouse the correct message that dedicated students who work hard will be rewarded and that their background or financial status will neither help nor hinder them. This is akin to the 'American Dream,' where everyone has an equal opportunity for success and can accomplish any aspiration with enough perseverance.

The legacy admission policy undermines these national values, long cherished by America. Attaining access to a higher level of education, which could potentially be life-changing, should not be based on the circumstances one is born into. If actions speak louder than words, what message are US colleges sending out by continuing to use this openly preferential admission system?

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Online statistics on acceptance rates alone are enough to convey the exceeding difficulty of getting into an Ivy League college. Acceptance is not guaranteed even with outstanding grades, high SAT scores, and flattering letters of recommendation. Acceptance could feel like an impossibility for students with no familial connections to the school.

In addition to competing with thousands of accomplished applicants, these students must also contend with the significant advantage of an alumni connection. In this way, legacy admissions could easily prove demotivating. This means legacy admissions could be detrimental to students if they lose self-belief in their potential, which is not ideal for society.

Finally, the continued use of legacy admissions could widen social inequalities, with those from less connected backgrounds facing an even greater challenge for acceptance. Legacy admission is like the domino effect. An education at an Ivy League school gives a solid competitive edge in the job market, meaning good jobs post-graduation with ample opportunity for promotion.

With significantly larger salaries in the long term, more fulfilling lifestyles can be enjoyed. Those who cannot include a distinguished school on their resume may find competing for highly sought-after jobs more challenging. In this way, legacy admissions may affect entire lives and generations, harming society through its potential to lower social mobility.

So What Now?

Following the Supreme Court's announcement on affirmative action, the US Department of Education opened an inquiry into Harvard's legacy admissions policies filed on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England. Unfortunately, more individuals, civil rights groups, and activists will likely need to take legal steps against elite colleges. This route may be inevitable to move toward a universal, merit-based system for college admissions.

In recent years, prestigious universities, including Amherst College, Carnegie Mellon University, and Johns Hopkins University, have eliminated legacy admissions. Other schools have been doing the same since the Supreme Court ruling. In addition, this summer, Colorado passed a state law banning the practice at all public colleges and universities - a sign that US states may be hastening to accelerate this development.

This is all good news.

As further light and debate ensue around this practice and its startling statistics, it is clear that ending legacy admissions for all schools will be an essential step towards equal access to a college education. By leveling the playing field, acceptance into prestigious schools will become an achievable ambition for any student.

Min Hoezoo-Mahmut
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Writer since Dec, 2022 · 8 published articles

Min is a Year 11 student based in the UK whose passions include animals, cats in particular, and ballet. Outside of her academic life, she trains and competes regularly in tennis and is an accomplished pianist. Min especially enjoys writing lifestyle and well-being articles that she thinks will help others.