Oct 25, 2021 - Economy

The legacy-admissions racket, explained

Illustration of an evidence style cork board with push pins and a golden string with a tassle forming the shape of a graduation cap.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Legacy admissions — the way in which universities are more likely to admit an applicant if she is directly related to an alumnus of the school — are one of the most blatant and unapologetic ways in which rich white families receive privileged access to elite institutions.

Why it matters: Legacy admissions are very slowly going away. But there's a very good reason they still remain at many top-tier universities: They're a way to admit more students from wealthy families, who in turn are more likely to become big donors.

Driving the news: Amherst College announced on Wednesday that it will no longer give admissions preferences to the children of alumni, thereby joining such institutions as the University of California, MIT, and Pomona College.

By the numbers: The effects of legacy admissions can be startling.

  • In 2002, before legacy admissions were discontinued, 321 white students were admitted to Texas A&M only because of their legacy ties to the university. The equivalent number for Black students — in a state where over 11% of the population was Black — was just three.
  • Legacies now account for just 3.5% of the class at Johns Hopkins, down from 12.5% when they had an extra advantage. The percentage of students identifying as an underrepresented minorities doubled from 12% to 23% between 2009 and 2016 after the legacy advantage was abolished.
  • At Notre Dame, legacies outnumber Black students by a factor of 5 to 1.
  • At Harvard, 77% of legacy students are white, and less than 6% of legacy admissions offers go to Hispanic students. A 2019 NBER paper calculated that out of the white students admitted to Harvard with some kind of artificial preference — not just legacies but also athletes and the children of staff — only a quarter of them would have been admitted without that preference.

What they're saying: Former Treasury secretary Larry Summers told the WSJ's Daniel Golden when he was president of Harvard that "legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is."

How it (doesn't) work: Legacy-admissions policies don't increase the amount of giving that any student or family will end up donating.

  • A 2008 paper found that donations actually tended to rise after legacy admissions were abolished, while a 2010 study concluded that "there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities."
  • Those papers adjust for wealth, however — and legacy admissions are a way of tilting the playing field in favor of wealthy families.

The bottom line: Children of the rich will always find it easier to get into any given university, even without legacy preferences, than will immigrants, the poor, or students whose parents never went to college.

  • They will also, statistically speaking, end up donating more after they've graduated. Which is one reason why colleges continue to give those students an extra advantage.
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