Is it time for the nation’s premier colleges and universities to do away with admissions policies that favor legacy applicants over all others? Scott Stern of The Nation argues that there is no more room for an admissions policy “conceived in elitism” that gives a leg up to children and close relatives of alumni.
Stern agrees that there’s some benefit to the legacy policies. The school becomes part of the family tradition and when generation after generation call it home, their close relationship might translate to future financial benefits for the school and its endowment fund. The practice, however, also has some pretty ugly history, and was initially introduced to limit the number of “undesirables” – mainly immigrants and Jews – from being overrepresented on the campuses of Ivy League schools.
Even today, while being unquestioningly favorable to the rich, legacy policies are also unintentionally favorable to white Americans. According to Richard Kahlenberg, editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, the percentage of underrepresented minorities among legacy admissions is half that of the makeup of each admissions class.
At Yale, having alumni family members is no insignificant asset. According to Dean Brenzel, the college treats “legacy status as a positive factor in the evaluation process, and in recent years legacies have been admitted at about three times the rate of non-legacies.” He cautions, however, that “the degree of advantage does not correspond to the difference in admit rates, because legacy applicants on average present academic qualifications substantially stronger than non-legacy applicants. In other words, the average legacy applicant is more competitive in the process, even without any regard paid to legacy status.”
The defenders of legacy admission policies at Yale and elsewhere say that they tend to bring with them benefits that have a positive impact on all Yale students. As a matter of fact, the donations made by the alumni make it possible for Yale to recruit more financially underprivileged students by funding scholarships and other financial aid offerings. Yet Stern argues that even so, accepting legacies undermines the supposed mission of the university, which is to attract “exceptionally promising students of all backgrounds.”
When questioned about the percentage of legacy students who identified as students of color or the percentage of legacy students on financial aid, Yale’s admissions office replied: “we don’t track or publish these kind of subgroup statistics.” A 1991 study at the comparable institution Harvard does shed some light, finding that legacy advantage disappeared almost entirely when a legacy applicant inquired about financial aid.
This will be the last year that the current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, Jeffrey Brenzel, remains in his post before returning to his teaching duties next fall. Stern argues that an upcoming reshuffle of the office and the introduction of a new head could serve as an exceptional opportunity to give the outdated legacy admissions policy a second look.