Legacy preference or legacy admission is a preference given by an institution or organization to certain applicants on the basis of their familial relationship to alumni of that institution, with college admissions being the field in which legacy preferences are most controversially used. Students so admitted are referred to as legacies or legacy students. Legacy preferences in college and university admissions are particularly widespread in the United States; almost three-quarters of research universities and nearly all liberal arts colleges grant legacy preferences in admissions.
Schools vary in how broadly they extend legacy preferences, with some schools granting this favor only to children of undergraduate alumni, while other schools extend the favor to children, grandchildren, siblings, nephews, and nieces of alumni of undergraduate and graduate programs. A 2005 analysis of 180,000 student records obtained from nineteen selective colleges and universities found that, within a set range of SAT scores, being a legacy raised an applicant's chances of admission by 19.7 percentage points.
While the sons of wealthy Americans had received priority in college admissions throughout the nineteenth century, in the early twentieth century, frustrated by the poor academic performances of their students, elite colleges raised their admission standards. Immigrants—especially the children of Jewish immigrant families—and Catholics and people from modest socioeconomic backgrounds frequently performed well on the new admissions tests and started to garner large numbers of undergraduate seats at top universities, while the number of admissions for wealthy white Anglo-American stock dropped significantly. In response, several Ivy League institutions began an official practice of legacy admissions, designed to reserve large numbers of seats at the top schools for the sons of wealthy Protestant American stock. Legacy admissions have involved decreasing the importance of entrance exams and adding such elements as assessing the "personal characteristics" of the young men seeking admittance, considering their "home influence," interviewing applicants, and asking for letters of recommendation. Such elements in the application process curtailed the admittance of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and working-class men and restored the overwhelming presence of white, wealthy Anglo-Protestant men.
A 1992 survey found that of the top seventy-five universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, only one (the California Institute of Technology) had no legacy preferences at all; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also affirmed that it does not practice legacy admissions. Legacy preferences were ubiquitous among the one hundred top-ranked liberal arts colleges as well. The only liberal arts college in the top one hundred that explicitly said it did not use legacy preferences was Berea.
Currently, the Ivy League institutions are estimated to admit 10% to 15% of each entering class using legacy admissions. For example, in the 2008 entering undergraduate class, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 41.7% of legacies who applied during the early decision admissions round and 33.9% of legacies who applied during the regular admissions cycle, versus 29.3% of all students who applied during the early decision admissions round and 16.4% of all who applied during the regular cycle. In 2009, Princeton admitted 41.7% of legacy applicants—more than 4.5 times the 9.2% rate of non-legacies. Similarly, in 2006, Brown University admitted 33.5% of alumni children, significantly higher than the 13.8% overall admissions rate. In short, Ivy League and other top schools typically admit legacies at two to five times their overall admission rates. Among top universities, the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University are known to weigh legacy status heavily in their application processes.
The advantages that colleges offer legacy students extend well beyond admission preferences. Many colleges have various mechanisms for coaching legacies through the admissions process and for advising them about strategies for constructing successful applications, including notifying legacies of the edge that they can gain by applying early. Some universities have alumni councils that provide legacies with special advising sessions, pair these would-be students with current legacy students, and generally provide advice and mentoring for legacy applicants. Some universities employ admissions counselors dedicated solely to legacy applicants, and it is common to provide scholarships or tuition discounts earmarked especially for legacies and for legacies to be charged in-state tuition fees when they are out-of-state residents. In cases where legacies are rejected, some universities offer legacy admissions counseling and help with placement at other colleges. Such students are often encouraged to enroll at a lesser ranked school for one or two years to prove themselves and then to reapply as transfer students. Because rankings by U.S. News & World Report and other media take into account only the SAT scores and high school grades of entering freshmen, a college can accept poor achieving legacies as transfer students without hurting its standing. Harvard caters to the children of well-connected alumni and big donors through the "Z-list." Z-listers are often guaranteed admittance while in high school but are obliged to take a year off between high school and Harvard, doing whatever they wish in the interim.
Former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers has stated, "Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is." In the 1998 book The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, authors William G. Bowen, former Princeton University president, and Derek Bok, former Harvard University president, found "the overall admission rate for legacies was almost twice that for all other candidates." While the preference is quite common in elite universities and liberal arts colleges, it is quite controversial, with 75% of Americans opposing the preference.
In comparison to other programs
At some schools, legacy preferences have an effect on admissions comparable to other programs such as athletic recruiting or affirmative action. One study of three selective private research universities in the United States showed the following effects (admissions disadvantage and advantage in terms of SAT points on the 1600-point scale):
- African Americans: +230
- Hispanics: +185
- Asians: -50
- Recruited athletes: +200
- Legacies (children of alumni): +160
Although it may initially appear that students of color are the most favored of all the groups in terms of college admissions, in practice, widespread legacy preferences have reduced acceptance rates for black, Latino, and Asian-American applicants because the overwhelming majority of legacy students are white. According to a 2008 study, Duke's legacies are more likely to be white, Protestant, American citizens, and private high school graduates than the overall student body. In 2000-2001, of 567 alumni children attending Princeton, 10 were Latino and 4 were black. Similarly, a 2005 study reported that half of the legacy applicants to selective colleges boasted family incomes in the top quartile of American earnings, compared to 29% of non-legacy students. In 2003, Texas A&M—which no longer practices legacy admissions—enrolled 312 white students and only 27 Latino and 6 black students who would not have been admitted if not for their family ties. Since 1983, there have been formal complaints to the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that Asian-American applicants are being rejected in favor of students with lesser credentials.
In 1990, the OCR determined that Harvard had admitted legacies at twice the rate of other applicants, that in several cases legacy status "was the critical or decisive favor" in a decision to admit an applicant, and that legacy preferences help explain why 17.4% of white applicants were admitted compared with only 13.2% of Asian-American applicants during the previous decade. The OCR also found that legacies on average were rated lower than applicants who were neither legacies nor athletes in every important category (excluding athletic ability) in which applicants were judged.
In the 1990s, the University of California's Board of Regents voted to ban the use of affirmative action preferences throughout the system, and legacy privilege was abandoned across the University of California system soon after.
The Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions policies in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, involving the University of Michigan's law school. The only significant criticism of legacy preferences from the Court came from Justice Clarence Thomas, the sole member of the Supreme Court who grew up poor.
While the majority of Americans have been shown to strongly oppose legacy admissions, its beneficiaries hold key positions in Congress and the judiciary, protecting this practice from political and legal challenge.
Effect on alumni donations
While many schools say that a main reason for legacy preferences is to increase donations, at an aggregate (school-wide) level the decision to prefer legacies has not been shown to increase donations. However, in some instances, while alumni donations may go up if a child is intending on applying, donations fall if that child is rejected.
Because private universities in the U.S. rely heavily on donations from alumni, critics argue that legacy preferences are a way to indirectly sell university placement. Opponents accuse these programs of perpetuating an oligarchy and plutocracy as they lower the weight of academic merit in the admissions process in exchange for a financial one. Legacy students tend to be the white and wealthy, contributing to socioeconomic inequality.
In 2008, alumni donations accounted for 27.5% of all donations to higher education in the U.S. In effect, in an era of steeply declining governmental funding to post-secondary education, universities and colleges feel forced to rely heavily on private donations from alumni for donations to fund university operations budgets and infrastructure.
Some supporters of the elimination of all non-academic preferences point out that many European universities, including highly selective institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, do not use legacy, racial, or athletic preferences in admissions decisions.
There are also legal arguments against legacy preferences. In public schools, legacy preferences may violate the Nobility Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by creating a hereditary privilege and discriminating on the basis of ancestry. Legacy preferences in both public and private universities may be illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (now codified in Section 1981 of the U.S. Code).
A 2019 survey of leading economists showed that there was near-unanimity that legacy admissions crowded out applicants with greater academic potential. However, the economists were divided as to whether the existence of legacy admissions meant that universities had a less beneficial impact on society than if there were no legacy admissions.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, "Introduction," Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2010), 1.
- Daniel Golden, "An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preferences," Affirmative-Action for the Rich, edited by Richard D. Kahlenberg, 73.
- Golden, "An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preference," Affirmative Action for the Rich, p. 74-76.
- Peter Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege," Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, edited by Richard D. Kahlenberg (New York: The Century Press, 2010), 38-44. See also Peter G. Schmidt, "Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action" (2007).
- Peterson, Chris. "Just To Be Clear: We Don't Do Legacy". MIT Admissions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
- "The curse of nepotism". The Economist. January 8, 2004.
- Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege," 59.
- Golden, "An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preference," 73-74.
- Golden, "An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preference," 75.
- Kahlenberg, Richard D. (September 29, 2010), "Elite Colleges, or Colleges for the Elite?", New York Times
- Meer, Jonathan, and Harvey S. Rosen. 2009. "Altruism and the Child Cycle of Alumni Donations." American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1 (1): 258-86.
- Espenshade, Thomas J.; Chung, Chang Y.; Walling, Joan L. (December 2004). "Admission preferences for minority students, athletes, and legacies at elite universities". Social Science Quarterly. 85 (5): 1422–1446. doi:10.1111/j.0038-4941.2004.00284.x. Pdf.
- Golden, "An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preferences," 77.
- Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege," 67.
- Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege," 61-62.
- Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege, 62.
- Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege," 65.
- Schmidt, "A History of Legacy Preferences and Privilege," 66.
- Daniel Golden, 'An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preference," Affirmative Action for the Rich, 71.
- Kathrin Lassila (November–December 2004), "Why Yale Favors Its Own", Yale Alumni magazine, archived from the original on 2010-12-02
- Chad Coffman; Tara O'Neil; Brian Starr (2010), "Chapter 5: An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Legacy Preferences on Alumni Giving at Top Universities" (PDF), Affirmative Action for the Rich, ISBN 978-0-87078-518-4
- Meer, Jonathan; Rosen, Harvey S. (2009). "Altruism and the Child Cycle of Alumni Donations". American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 1 (1): 258–86. doi:10.1257/pol.1.1.258.
- "Oxford hopefuls urged to ditch the flute and work hard". BBC News. August 27, 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2011.
- "Does the University of Oxford have better admissions policies than elite U.S. universities?".
- Larson, Carlton. “Titles of Nobility, Hereditary Privilege, and the Unconstitutionality of Legacy Preferences in Public School Admissions”, Washington University Law Review, Volume 84, page 1375 (2006).
- "Legacy, Athlete, and Donor Preferences Disproportionately Benefit White Applicants, per Analysis | News | The Harvard Crimson". www.thecrimson.com.
- "College Admissions". www.igmchicago.org. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
- "Meritocracy in America", The Economist, December 29, 2004.
- "For Groton grads, Academics aren't the Only Keys to Ivy Schools", Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2003, by Daniel Golden.
- "Candidate opposes legacy places", The Daily Princetonian, February, 2003
- "Will Bush Truly Renounce Privilege in Admissions?", The Boston Globe
- "The Curse of Nepotism", The Economist, January 8, 2004.
- "Study: Ending affirmative action would devastate most minority college enrollment"