OPINION: We need to end legacy preferences

The Harvard logo looms in the background while a mother and son clad in Harvard gear smile mockingly at two others dressed in black
Graphic by Elaine Yang

Colleges need to end legacy admissions preferences.

The legacy admissions system gives a significant advantage to people based on their pedigree rather than their merit, limits the inclusiveness of institutions toward people of color (especially by forcing different minority groups to compete against each other more intensely) and, ironically, doesn’t even lead to greater donations — one of the only defenses toward legacy preferences.

Legacy students are those whose parents (or grandparents) went to the same institution they’re attending. They have an enormous advantage when it comes to the admissions process. 

Although colleges rarely provide data on legacy admit rates, legacies can gain a 45 percentage-point increase in their chances of admission, according to a 2011 study involving 30 elite colleges.

In other words, legacy preferences enable a fair amount of students, who normally would not have gotten into a particular college, to be admitted just because their parents went there.

Normally, I wouldn’t have a problem with this. The 5Cs are so competitive that there are many, many more qualified applicants than there are seats, giving each institution significant leeway in customizing a class. If a college wants to cultivate a multi-generational college tradition in many families, then more power to them. 

But the only problem is that there are more important things to prioritize than a 5C legacy in some families — especially greater diversity.

Part of preparing a group of students for a diverse world is having a student body that reflects this said diverse world. As historically disadvantaged groups gain more prominence in their fight for equality, it’s imperative that the 5Cs adapt by including students from diverse backgrounds, including different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Not only is it imperative, but it’s also the right thing to do.

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Affirmative action and subsequent institutional support, while imperfect, work to rectify past injustices such as the systemic discrimination that barred many minorities from entering colleges, including the 5Cs. 

It’s based on the assumption that if colleges give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a leg up, these students will finally have room to flourish.

Legacy preferences, on the other hand, help perpetuate past injustices, as the parents of legacies went to college during a time of greater racial inequality.

Legacy admits in elite colleges are overwhelmingly white, which was confirmed by a September study based on recent affirmative action lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard — signifying a non-diverse past student body. (I’m assuming what’s true for Harvard University is most likely true for other elite colleges.)

This is a system that gives some people yet another advantage in an unfair society that most likely already privileges them, since they might not have been admitted to an elite college if they hadn’t been born to the right parents.

Thus, legacy preferences should be abolished; this change would open up more spots for more qualified applicants, especially students of color, and also provide a golden opportunity to make elite colleges like the 5Cs more diverse.

This is a solution that is a good first step to correcting inequality.

Even though removing the legacy system would help rectify past and continuing injustices, it stays in place because some people, especially those in college administrations, defend it as being necessary for economic benefits.

Except that it isn’t true. 

A study that tracked alumni giving from 1998 to 2008 found “no statistically significant evidence” that legacy preferences led to an increase in alumni donations — they just let in more kids from privileged families.

Besides, I seriously doubt that a college with $2.3 billion endowment (Pomona College) is in desperate need of extra funding.

In other words, there’s no compelling evidence for the assertion that ending legacy preferences would precipitate a financial disaster for colleges. This makes sense: If you are a wealthy alumnus or alumna and are not willing to “give back” to your college, the fact that your kids go there is unlikely to change your mind. 

Moreover, the rejection of your kid (something that’s highly likely given your school’s competitiveness) is unlikely to make you so angry at the college that you stop donating altogether.

Legacy preferences cannot be an issue we keep stalling on. Students should advocate for change and administrators should effect this badly needed reform. Though it’s merely a first step, doing so will help spring the 5Cs into a diverse future, as opposed to being held back in the past.

John Gibson PO ’22 is most likely going to major in history and is from Kayenta, Arizona. He strongly believes in diversity and is at a loss on how to best increase it in an equitable way beyond rudimentary first steps.

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