For nearly a century, many American college and university admissions officers have given preferential treatment to the children of alumni.

The policies originated in the 1920s, coinciding with an influx of Jewish and Catholic applicants to the country’s top schools. They continue today, placing a thumb on the scale in favor of students who already enjoy the benefits of being raised by families with elite educations.

Of the country’s top 100 schools (as determined by the editors at U.S. News & World Report), roughly three-quarters have legacy preferences in admissions. These anachronistic policies have been called “affirmative action for the rich” and “affirmative action for whites.”

Preferential treatment for legacy admissions is anti-meritocratic, inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system. In short, it is an engine of inequity. Little wonder that it is unpopular with most Americans, yet supported by the affluent who both oversee the college admissions process and are its primary beneficiaries.

Legacy admissions are no ordinary leg up. In 2011, a Harvard researcher who studied 30 of the nation’s most selective schools found that all legacy applicants had a 23 percent higher probability of admission, while “primary legacy” students (those with a parent who attended the school as an undergraduate, rather than, say, a grandparent or aunt) had a 45 percent higher probability compared with their peers, all other things being equal.

A federal trial last year over the admission practices at Harvard University focused on how the school’s affirmative action policies may have affected Asian-American applicants. That case is still being considered by a judge. But in the course of the trial some eye-popping numbers came to light.

Between 2010 and 2015, the admission rate for legacy applicants at Harvard was higher than 33 percent. It was 6 percent for nonlegacies. More than 20 percent of the white applicants admitted to the school during that period were legacies.

Backers of legacy preference point out that at Harvard and other schools across the country, the student body — and with it the pool of alumni — has gotten more diverse over time. That means that the composition of the legacy population is also diversifying.

At Harvard, evidence from the trial showed, some 80 percent of legacy admissions for the class of 2014 were white, while only 60 percent of legacies in the class of 2019 were white. Would ending legacy preference equate to pulling up the ladder ahead of a more diverse group of students who could leverage their legacy status?

Not in the least. Consideration of race in admissions can be defended not only as a remedy for past injustices but also as an imperative for schools seeking to represent the population at large. But continuing to give applicants an advantage simply because of where their parents went to school is, as one critic called it, “a form of property transfer from one generation to another.”

Colleges counter that the children of alumni — partly by virtue of the education their parents received — are well-qualified for admission into their schools. That raises the question: If the value of a degree is indeed generational (research shows that it very likely is), why do the progeny and grandprogeny of graduates deserve yet another thumb on the scale?

Like many policies of past eras, legacy admissions get uglier the closer you look at them. A few decades ago, the percentage of legacy students at top schools was sometimes higher than it is today. But admission rates at those institutions have fallen much faster than the percentage of legacy students. “

If you take a typical Ivy League school, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, it might admit two-thirds of legacy applicants. Now it might admit one-third of legacy applicants. But, at the same time, its overall acceptance rate has probably gone down from between 20 and 25 percent to between 5 and 10 percent. So, proportionally, being a legacy is even more of an advantage,” Dan Golden, an investigative journalist, told The New Yorker.

Reform of higher education is in the air. Withholding federal funds — a public policy bulldozer that the federal government successfully used against schools that violated civil rights laws — would be a major step, but one that also risks hurting low-income students who earn spots at elite schools and need the aid.

Instead, the government could require schools to tally and publish how many of their students are legacy admits, along with their scores and socioeconomic status, as a way to give the issue more publicity and to shame them into ending the practice. Sen. Ted Kennedy — a legacy student if ever there was one — introduced legislation to do just that in 2003.

Whatever the mechanism, it makes sense for a group of competitor schools to take the leap together, a mutual stand-down. Doing so would be in the best traditions of American higher education, which for decades has worked to extend opportunity to generations of poor and minority students.

Inaction by the academy, on the other hand, risks fueling a growing public sense that higher education is part of the crisis of the American establishment.

Reprinted from The New York Times with permission.

Recommended for you

Join the conversation

When posting comments, please follow our community guidelines:
• Login with a social account on WorldTable.
• Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language or engage in personal attacks.
• Stay on topic. Don’t hijack a forum to talk about something else or to post spam.
• Abuse of the community could result in being banned.
• Comments on our website and social media may be published in our newspaper or on our website.