Legacy preferences

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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. (Students so admitted are referred to as legacies or legacy students.) This particularly refers to university and college admission, and this preference is most common in admission to American universities and colleges[1] and emerged after World War I, primarily in response to the resulting immigrant influx.[2] The Ivy League institutions are estimated to admit 10% to 30% of each entering class using this factor.[3][4] Legacy preference is not strictly limited to college admissions, however; it may also come about with regard to admission into collegiate fraternities and sororities and other fraternal organizations such as Freemasonry. Legacy preferences are generally not allowed in Europe.

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.[5]

Legacy preferences in comparison to other programmes[edit]

At some schools, legacy preferences have an effect on admissions comparable to other factors such as being a recruited athlete 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 old 1600-point scale):

  • Blacks: +230
  • Hispanics: +185
  • Asians: -50
  • Recruited athletes: +200
  • Legacies (children of alumni): +160[6]


Because private universities in 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 wealthy, contributing to socioeconomic injustices. Another criticism is that the wealthy are given an insurmountable advantage which hinders economic mobility within the society, in effect creating a de facto caste system.

Economically, while many schools say that a main reason for legacy preference is to increase donations,[7] at an aggregate (school-wide) level the decision to prefer legacies has not been shown to increase donations.[8] In fact, several institutions have demonstrated that they can do extremely well without legacy admissions, including MIT and Caltech. However, in some instances, while alumni donations may go up if a child is intending on applying, donations fall if that child is rejected.[9]

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, or athletic preferences in admissions decisions.[10]

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.[11] Legacy preferences in both public and private universities may be illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (also known as Section 1981).

See also[edit]

Outside resources[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel Golden (2010), "Chapter 4: An Analytic Survey of Legacy Preference", Affirmative Action for the Rich, ISBN 978-0-87078-518-4 
  2. ^ Peter G. Schmidt (2007). Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action. ISBN 978-1-4039-7601-7. 
  3. ^ "The curse of nepotism". The Economist. January 8, 2004. 
  4. ^ "Legacy Admit Rate at 30 Percent", The Harvard Crimson. May 11, 2011.
  5. ^ RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG (2010-09-29), "Elite Colleges, or Colleges for the Elite?", New York Times 
  6. ^ 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 (Wiley) 85 (5): 1422–1446. doi:10.1111/j.0038-4941.2004.00284.x.  Pdf.
  7. ^ Kathrin Lassila (November–December 2004), "Why Yale Favors Its Own", Yale Alumni magazine 
  8. ^ Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil, and 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 
  9. ^ Jonathan Meer and Harvey S. Rosen (2007), "Altruism and the Child-Cycle of Alumni Giving", National Bureau of Economic Research 
  10. ^ "Oxford hopefuls urged to ditch the flute and work hard". BBC News. August 27, 2010. Retrieved 1 July 2011. 
  11. ^ 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).