The Unjust Nature of Legacy Admissions

The U.S. private education system spans a complex web of historical, financial, and political influences and practices that uphold each other, with legacy admissions being one such example.

The U.S. private education system spans a complex web of historical, financial, and political influences and practices that uphold each other, with legacy admissions being one such example. Legacy students are proven to have several advantages compared to regular applicants, and yet, many institutions simply refuse to consider the fairness of this process. Simply put, the concept of legacy applications doesn’t wreak havoc on the private sector of U.S. education, rather, it’s a symptom of its character. Although private U.S. institutions of higher education have numerous networking goals and legal justifications that explain the legacy process, the policy of legacy admissions leads to bias, and should not be conducted by institutions that receive government subsidies.

Private schools have a host of justifications for legacy admissions, including the need for strong alumni networks, increased school spirit, and the usage of legacy as a deciding factor between students with applications of equal strength. A committee formed at Harvard University during 2017 concluded that a policy abolishing legacy admissions practices could jeopardize current and future alumni funding that benefit important university programs such as financial aid and expansion projects. Studies conducted by UCLA San Diego also promote the connection between legacy applicants and the building of school spirit, as well as elite alumni networking. In fact, Harvard’s Dean justified legacy admissions by stating that admitting sufficient legacy students, who are presumed to have more familiarity with the institution compared to new students, helps build an overall stronger connection to the school. Finally, since alumni children tend to have strong application profiles, when deciding between two applicants that both meet university requirements, the admissions office would naturally take into account the benefits of a legacy connection. After all, shouldn’t a good university look for a student body of new attendees who exceed standards, not barely make cutoffs? Although beneficial to a school’s endowment, these arguments overlook the stark realities of the U.S. education system that render legacy admissions unnecessary and unjust. First, from the standpoint of moral obligation, private universities must uphold the goals of the U.S. education system just as any public university should. The vast majority of public and “private” universities receive tax-cuts and are often tax-exempt. However, only 6 percent of public universities consider legacy as a factor in their admissions, as opposed to the 42 percent of “private” universities. Legacy admissions was first introduced to prevent large influxes of Jews into the top institutions, and to this day, overwhelmingly favor wealthy, white applicants. This practice seems increasingly unjust, considering that these institutions are being aided by federal policy to promote a diverse and supportive learning environment for the most qualified applicants, regardless of family history.

Furthermore, legacy admissions do not actually correlate with the financial stability of a private institution, and given the description of legacy admissions as “affirmative action for the rich,” the practice blatantly ignores the reality of the admissions processes for the sake of traditional norms. Five of the top ten universities in the world explicitly refute the legacy admissions process, and these institutions, such as the California Institute of Technology, Oxford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, certainly aren’t suffering a jeopardization of their finances. A study by U.S. News & World Report showed that legacy preferences had no statistically significant difference in donation figures of alumni children between 1980 and 2010. For example, a steady decline in the percentage of legacy students at Yale University, has absolutely no negative impact on the growth of the school’s endowments. Thus, repealing legacy admission certainly will not cripple the financial situation of a large university. Finally, the argument that legacy status merely distinguishes two equally strong applications fails in the face of statistics. A former Princeton University admissions officer stated that up to 10 percent of every class consisted of legacy students who would not have been admitted otherwise, which signifies that legacy plays a big role in weighing the merits of two applicants. Thus, there appears to be no financial necessity or reasonability in decision making connected to legacy admissions; all the while, the process does offer a ridiculous advantage to students who simply don’t need a leg up.

Consequently, though plenty of justifications exist for legacy admissions, this practice betrays the furtherance of education in the U.S. It unfairly favors a group of predominantly wealthy students who do not need such unbalanced benefits from institutions, and it offers no significant financial gain. In truth, networking and the influence of the wealthy will persist as a dominant aspect of college admissions, but legacy does not need to play this part.

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