Why It’s Time To End Legacy Admissions

Read Time: 3 minutes

For a long time it’s been the policy of selective colleges to prefer “legacy” admission candidates, those with a parent or grandparent who was a graduate or donor. Being a legacy today does not guarantee admission, but — as the expression goes — it doesn’t hurt.

Now, however, there’s an effort underway to end legacy admissions so that more freshman and graduate slots will be available to a wider pool of candidates. At least three states — Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia according to The Hechinger Report — have banned the practice and others are likely to follow.

At the federal level, Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) have introduced the Merit-Based Educational Reforms and Institutional Transparency Act (MERIT Act). If passed, it will prohibit preferential treatment “based on an applicant’s relationship to alumni or donors of the deciding institution.”

The legacy conversation involves such hot-button issues as class, race, religion, money, and status. The practice began to ensure that the children of favored families would gain access to leading colleges.

Writing in InsideHigherEd this year, Yale students Birikti Kahsai and Sam Haddad explain that “The term ‘legacy preference’ describes an admissions preference for students with familial ties to an institution of higher education. Its origins date back more than a century, when elite colleges began deprioritizing merit-based metrics and focusing on students’ familial ties during the admissions process. The purpose of these practices was clear: universities intended to limit enrollment of ethnic and religious minorities.”

The Nation reports that legacy admissions essentially created a free pass for lucky recipients.

“Until the 1960s, legacy status essentially guaranteed admission into many of the top private schools in the country. In 1925, Yale admitted legacies ‘regardless of the number of applicants and the superiority of outside competitors.’”

The Life Advantage

The ability to get into the Nation’s leading colleges is not a minor matter. They’re often the key to higher incomes and greater success, they can establish a lifetime of social and business connections. 

According to a 2023 study from Opportunity Insights, “Leadership positions in the United States are held disproportionately by graduates of a group of 12 highly selective, private ‘Ivy-Plus’ colleges—the eight colleges in the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford. Less than one percent of Americans attend these 12 colleges, yet they account for 13.4% of those in the top 0.1% of the income distribution, a quarter of U.S. Senators, half of all Rhodes scholars, and three-fourths of Supreme Court justices appointed in the last half-century.”

The use of legacy criteria is widespread among institutions that are markedly less selective than the Ivy-Plus schools. Education Reform Now found last year that nearly 800 colleges and universities considered legacy status when reviewing admission applications. 

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Why are legacy practices still with us?

If you can get a rich alumnus to make a six- or seven-figure donation — or more — then as a college president or administrator you can solve a lot of practical problems. And, if a legacy applicant seeks admission, that’s usually a defensible choice because such children frequently have access to better educations, a wide array of social experiences, the advantage of admission test prep classes and tutors, plus few worries about tuition.

They’re good candidates to succeed, and maybe the family will want to chip in a little more to help their beloved alma mater.

Such sweetheart deals are not without cost. Students without gilded backgrounds might also succeed, but admission for them is less certain.

But there’s something else: Those who are not part of the financial elite may do perfectly well both in school and in life. You don’t have to be a legacy at a leading university to find success, however you want to define the term.

Sam Dogen, founder of the Financial Samurai website, notes that Harvard University graduates have a median income of $84,918 a decade after leaving school.

“That’s not even close to a top one percent income for a 32-34-year-old,” he writes. 

College admissions will become a little wider as schools chip away at legacy preferences. They’re an unjustifiable advantage created to limit the opportunity of others, and an end to the practice will be a good thing.

Peter G. Miller

Peter G. Miller is a nationally-syndicated columnist, the author of seven books published originally by Harper & Row (including one with a co-author), and has contributed to leading online sites and major print publications. He has appeared on numerous media outlets including the Today Show, Oprah!, CNN, and NPR.

Peter has been an accredited correspondent on Capitol Hill and a member of the White House Correspondents Association. He has served with the District of Columbia National Guard and holds both BA and MS degrees from The American University in Washington, DC. View Peter on LinkedIn.