• September 3, 2015

10 Myths About Legacy Preferences in College Admissions


Joyce Hesselberth For The Chronicle

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Joyce Hesselberth For The Chronicle

Legacy preferences, which provide a leg up in college admissions to applicants who are the offspring of alumni, are employed at almost three-quarters of selective research universities and virtually all elite liberal-arts colleges. Yet legacy preferences have received relatively little public attention, especially when compared with race-based affirmative-action programs, which have given rise to hundreds of books and law-review articles, numerous court decisions, and several state initiatives to ban the practice.

The secrecy surrounding legacy preferences has perpetuated a number of myths, including the following:

1. Legacy preferences are just a "tie breaker" in close calls.

While some colleges and universities try to play down the impact of legacy preferences, calling them "tie breakers," research from Princeton's Thomas Espenshade suggests that their weight is significant, on the order of adding 160 SAT points to a candidate's record (on a scale of 400-1600). Likewise, William Bowen, of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and colleagues found that, within a given SAT-score range, being a legacy increased one's chances of admission to a selective institution by 19.7 percentage points. That is to say, a given student whose academic record gave her a 40-percent chance of admissions would have nearly a 60-percent chance if she were a legacy.

The children of alumni generally make up 10 to 25 percent of the student body at selective institutions. The proportion varies little from year to year, suggesting "an informal quota system," says the former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden. By contrast, at the California Institute of Technology, which does not use legacy preferences, only 1.5 percent of students are children of alumni.

2. Legacy preferences have an honorable history of fostering loyalty at America's great institutions of higher learning.

In fact, as Peter Schmidt, of The Chronicle, notes, legacies originated following World War I as a reaction to an influx of immigrant students, particularly Jews, into America's selective colleges. As Jews often outcompeted traditional constituencies on standard meritocratic criteria, universities adopted Jewish quotas. When explicit quotas became hard to defend, the universities began to use more-indirect means to limit Jewish enrollment, including considerations of "character," geographic diversity, and legacy status.

3. Legacy preferences are a necessary evil to support the financial vitality of colleges and universities—including the ability to provide scholarships for low-income and working-class students.

While universities claim that legacy preferences are necessary to improve fund raising, there is little empirical evidence to support the contention. In fact, several colleges and universities that do not employ legacy preferences nevertheless do well financially. As Golden notes, Caltech raised $71-million in alumni donations in 2008, almost as much as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($77-million), even though MIT, which does provide legacy preferences, is five times the size and has many more alumni to tap. Berea College, in Kentucky, favors low-income students, not alumni, yet has a larger endowment than Middlebury, Oberlin, Vassar, and Bowdoin. And Cooper Union, in New York City, does not provide legacy preference but has an endowment larger than that of Bucknell, Haverford, and Davidson.

Moreover, a study included in our new book, Affirmative Action for the Rich, finds no evidence that alumni preferences increase giving. Chad Coffman, of Winnemac Consulting, and his co-authors examined alumni giving from 1998 to 2007 at the top 100 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report) to test the relationship between giving and the existence of alumni preferences in admissions. They found that institutions with preferences for children of alumni did have higher annual giving per alumnus ($317 versus $201), but that the advantage resulted because the alumni in colleges with alumni preferences tended to be wealthier. Controlling for the wealth of alumni, they found "no evidence that legacy-preference policies themselves exert an influence on giving behavior." After controls, alumni of legacy-granting institutions gave only $15.39 more per year, on average, but even that slight advantage was uncertain from a statistical perspective. Coffman and his colleagues conclude: "After inclusion of appropriate controls, including wealth, there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities."

The researchers also examined giving at seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences during the period of the study. They found "no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result of abolishing legacy preferences." For example, after Texas A&M eliminated the use of legacy preferences, in 2004, donations took a small hit, but then they increased substantially from 2005 to 2007.

Nor can legacy preferences be said to be necessary for colleges to maintain high standards of excellence. It is intriguing to note that, among the top 10 universities in the world in 2008, according to the widely cited Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings, are four (Caltech, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge) that do not employ legacy preferences.

4. After a generation of affirmative action, legacy preferences are finally beginning to help families of color. Pulling the rug out now would hurt minority students.

In fact, legacy preferences continue to disproportionately hurt students of color. John Brittain, a former chief counsel at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and the attorney Eric Bloom note that underrepresented minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities but only 6.7 percent of the legacy-applicant pool. At Texas A&M, 321 of the legacy admits in 2002 were white, while only three were black and 25 Hispanic. At Harvard, only 7.6 percent of legacy admits in 2002 were underrepresented minorities, compared with 17.8 percent of all students. At the University of Virginia, 91 percent of early-decision legacy admits in 2002 were white, 1.6 percent black, and 0.5 percent Hispanic.

Moreover, this disparate impact is likely to extend far into the future. In 2008, African-Americans and Latinos made up more than 30 percent of the traditional college-aged population but little more than 10 percent of the enrollees at the U.S. News's top 50 national universities.

5. An attack on legacy preferences could indirectly hurt affirmative-action policies by suggesting that "merit" is the only permissible basis for admissions.

The elimination of legacy preferences would not threaten the future of affirmative action, because the justifications are entirely different. Affirmative-action policies to date have survived strict scrutiny because they enhance educational diversity. (For some members of the Supreme Court, though not a majority, affirmative action also has been justified as a remedy for centuries of brutal discrimination.) Legacy preferences, by contrast, have no such justification.

Because they disproportionately benefit whites, legacy preferences reduce, rather than enhance, racial and ethnic diversity in higher education. And rather than being a remedy for discrimination, they were born of discrimination. Affirmative action engenders enormous controversy because it pits two great principles against each other—the antidiscrimination principle, which says we should not classify people by ancestry, and the anti-subordination principle, which says we must make efforts to stamp out illegitimate hierarchies. Legacy preferences, by contrast, advance neither principle: They explicitly classify individuals by bloodline and do so in a way that compounds existing hierarchy.

6. Legacy preferences may be unfair, but they are not illegal. Unlike discrimination based on race, which is forbidden under the 14th Amendment, it is perfectly legal to discriminate based on legacy status, as the courts have held.

Remarkably, legacy preferences have been litigated only once in federal court, by an applicant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill named Jane Cheryl Rosenstock, in the 1970s. A New York resident whose application was rejected, she claimed that her constitutional rights were violated by a variety of preferences, including those for in-state applicants, minorities, low-income students, athletes, and legacies. Rosenstock was not a particularly compelling candidate—her combined SAT score was about 850 on a 1600-point scale, substantially lower than most out-of-state applicants—and she was also a weak litigant. She never argued that, because legacy preferences are hereditary, they presented a "suspect" classification that should be judged by the "strict scrutiny" standard under the amendment's equal-protection clause.

The district-court judge in the case, Rosenstock v. Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina, held that it was rational to believe that alumni preferences translate into additional revenue to universities, although absolutely no evidence was provided for that contention. The decision was never appealed. As Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit notes, the 1976 opinion upholding legacy preferences in Rosenstock addressed the issue "in a scant five sentences" and is "neither binding nor persuasive to future courts."

A generation later, two new legal theories are available to challenge legacy preferences. First, Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, lays out the case that legacy preferences at public universities violate a little-litigated constitutional provision that "no state shall ... grant any Title of Nobility." Examining the early history of the country, Larson makes a compelling case that this prohibition should not be interpreted narrowly as simply prohibiting the naming of individuals as dukes or earls, but more broadly, to prohibit "government-sponsored hereditary privileges"—including legacy preferences at public universities. Reviewing debates in the Revolutionary era, he concludes: "Legacy preferences at exclusive public universities were precisely the type of hereditary privilege that the Revolutionary generation sought to destroy forever." The founders, Larson writes, would have resisted "with every fiber of their being" the idea of state-supported-university admissions based even in part on ancestry.

Second, the attorneys Steve Shadowen and Sozi Tulante argue that legacy preferences are a violation of the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause. While the amendment was aimed primarily at stamping out discrimination against black Americans, it also extends more broadly to what Justice Potter Stewart called "preference based on lineage." Individuals are to be judged on their own merits, not by what their parents do, which is why the courts have applied heightened scrutiny to laws that punish children born out of wedlock, or whose parents came to this country illegally.

Shadowen and Tulante argue that legacy preferences at private universities, too, are illegal, under the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Unlike Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination only on the basis of "race, color, or national origin," the 1866 law prohibits discrimination on the basis of both "race" and "ancestry."

7. Legacy preferences—like affirmative action, geographic preferences, and athletics preferences—are protected by academic freedom, especially at private universities and colleges.

It is true that the courts have recognized that colleges and universities should be given leeway in admissions in order to promote academic freedom. But that freedom is not unlimited, even at private institutions. As Peter Schmidt notes, the Supreme Court held, in Runyon v. McCrary (1976), that private schools could not engage in racial discrimination in admissions. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), it struck down the use of racial quotas. And in the 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger decision, the court invalidated a policy that awarded bonus points to minority students. Ancestry discrimination—providing a leg up in admissions based not on merit but on whether a student's parents or grandparents attended a particular university or college—likewise falls outside the protected zone of academic freedom.

8. Legacy preferences have been around a long time and are unlikely to ever go away, because powerful political forces support them.

In fact, legacy preferences are not only legally vulnerable; they are politically vulnerable as well. Polls find that Americans oppose legacy preferences by 75 percent to 23 percent, and in the past decade or so, 16 leading institutions have abandoned them. As affirmative-action programs come under increasing attack, legacy preferences become even harder to justify politically.

Moreover, as a matter of tax law, legacy preferences are fundamentally unstable. Assuming it is true that they entice alumni to provide larger donations than they otherwise would—a claim that has not been empirically proven—then IRS regulations raise questions about whether those donations should be tax deductible. If universities and colleges are conferring a monetary benefit in exchange for donations, then the arrangement, writes the journalist Peter Sacks, "shatters the first principle underlying the charitable deduction, that donations to nonprofit organizations not 'enrich the giver.'" The IRS regulations place universities in a legal Catch-22: Either donations are not linked to legacy preferences, in which case the fundamental rationale for ancestry discrimination is flawed; or giving is linked to legacy preferences, in which case donations should not be tax deductible.

9. Legacy preferences don't keep nonlegacy applicants out of college entirely. They just reduce the chances of going to a particular selective college, so the stakes are low.

True, legacy preferences don't bar students from attending college at all. But the benefits of attending a selective institution are substantial. For one thing, wealthy selective colleges tend to spend a great deal more on students' education. Research finds that the least-selective colleges spend about $12,000 per student annually, compared with $92,000 per student at the most-selective ones. In addition, wealthy selective institutions provide much greater subsidies for families. At the wealthiest 10 percent of institutions, students pay, on average, just 20 cents in fees for every dollar the college spends on them, while at the poorest 10 percent of institutions, students pay 78 cents for every dollar spent on them. Furthermore, selective colleges are better than less-selective institutions at graduating equally qualified students. And future earnings are, on average, 45 percent higher for students who graduated from more-selective institutions than for those from less-selective ones, and the difference in earnings ends up being widest among low-income students. Finally, according to research by the political scientist Thomas Dye, 54 percent of America's corporate leaders and 42 percent of governmental leaders are graduates of just 12 institutions. For all those reasons, legacy preferences matter.

10. Everyone does it. Legacies are just an inherent reality in higher education throughout the world.

In fact, as Daniel Golden writes, legacy preferences are "virtually unknown in the rest of the world"; they are "an almost exclusively American custom." The irony, of course, is that while legacies are uniquely American, they are also deeply un-American, as Michael Lind, of the New America Foundation, has argued.

Thomas Jefferson famously sought to promote in America a "natural aristocracy" based on "virtue and talent," rather than an "artificial aristocracy" based on wealth. "By reserving places on campus for members of the pseudo-aristocracy of 'wealth and birth,'" Lind writes, "legacy preferences introduce an aristocratic snake into the democratic republican Garden of Eden."

For the most part, American higher education has sought to democratize, opening its doors to women, to people of color, and to the financially needy. Legacy preferences are an outlier in that trend, a relic that has no place in American society. In a fundamental sense, this nation's first two great wars—the Revolution and the Civil War—were fought to defeat different forms of aristocracy. That this remnant of ancestry-based discrimination still survives—in American higher education, of all places—is truly breathtaking.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, being published this month by the Century Foundation Press.


1. iris411 - September 22, 2010 at 09:18 am

The legacy preference seriously reminds me of Chinese merit system, your academic performances will not matter at all. All that counts is who are you mom and dad, and sometimes who are you grandparents may count more.

2. washingtonwarrior - September 22, 2010 at 09:48 am

Legacy preference is basically the modern-day Grandfather Clause. Not good...

3. griblets - September 22, 2010 at 10:20 am

Whilw I am persuaded that legacy admissions is not "right," can the author provide some numbers- i.e., quantify how many unqualified legacy students enroll each year? Because surely some legacy admits do deserve to get in based on their own qualifications? Unless the unqualified number is substantial, this seems somewhat like a tempest in a teapot. Isn't the use of merit scholarships at public institutions particularly a similar but larger and more serious issue?

4. 11147066 - September 22, 2010 at 11:28 am

Professor Kahlenberg has done a service in shedding light on this troubling issue. However, I agree with "griblets" that he needs to provide more information about specifics. Overall, legacy admissions have dropped dramatically over the past several decades. While legacies now occupy a perhaps undeserved 15% of the class at Ivy League Schools, as late as the 1980s they composed a much larger percentage. Since college admissions are a zero sum game, as universities try to recruit more diverse types of students legacy admissions have declined, although they are still very high relative to non-legacies. Increasingly it seems, colleges make a crucial distinction between wealthy alumni who provide or raise funds and those who do not. The majority of legacy applicants at most colleges are rejected. Professor Kahlenberg needs to explain further why, if this group is so privileged, about three out of four legacy applicants do not succeed in gaining admission to their parents' Ivy League schools.
A minor point, but I believe that M.I.T. claims not to favor legacy applicants at all, in which case the comparison to Caltech is incorrect.

5. racheltoor - September 22, 2010 at 01:08 pm

This book looks like it will be another important contribution to the conversation about the inequities of the elite college admissions process, joining Peter Schmidt's and Dan Golden's excellent books, and Thomas Espenshade's good work. I'll look forward to seeing the full argument in print.
Rachel Toor

6. 22228715 - September 22, 2010 at 01:16 pm

Very convincingly written! I am aware of proponents of affirmative action using some of the above data as well as data on athletes to challenge the common misperception that affirmative action sneaks the weakest students into the last few slots. And you're right - Thomas Jefferson would probably cringe at the legacy tradition of UVa.

But of course, in a commentary, one includes only the data that most favorably shine on one's argument. Other questioners, or is anyone willing to take counterpoint in a similar fashion?

7. shushok - September 22, 2010 at 01:31 pm

I am pretty sure that under former President Robert Gates, Texas A&M ceased legacy admissions.

8. aprilmay - September 22, 2010 at 03:17 pm

Like the others who posted, I would love to see data, but such data is probably very difficult to get. The number of "unqualified" legacy applicants is not a number most universities are going to share. I would hope that most legacy studies are qualified, and that they they have a higher chance because they are given a preference when there are more qualified applicants than slots. Also, not all legacy admissions are the same. Don't some universities give legacy applicants a bigger bump than others? It would be interesting to see data on all types of applications that get preferential treatment, including legacies, athletics, etc.

9. mawickline - September 22, 2010 at 03:59 pm

Legacy admissions are, and always have been, affirmative action for upper middle class white people. And they've had it long before anyone else in the sixties.

10. principec - September 22, 2010 at 04:10 pm

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you George W. Bush.

11. dank48 - September 22, 2010 at 04:36 pm

"Finally, according to research by the political scientist Thomas Dye, 54 percent of America's corporate leaders and 42 percent of governmental leaders are graduates of just 12 institutions."

Considering where we are and how we got here, I've never seen a better argument for nuking a dozen American "institutions of higher learning." Tough on the neighbors, sure, but collateral damage is inevitable, as someone once said.

12. uschistory - September 22, 2010 at 05:02 pm

Universities have many reasons for admitting people They are institutions with history, tradition and character and alumni children are part of that history which is why the term "legacy" is used. Why would universities systematically ignore this factor any more than they would ignore artistic ability, race or ethnic background or academic ability?

13. supertatie - September 22, 2010 at 05:07 pm

Wow, what is this? More of the "too many white kids are going to college" schtick? Affirmative action just hasn't knocked enough upper-middle-class white males out of the applicant pool, so let's find another way to cull the herd.

When affirmative action admissions are challenged, advocates trot out the statistics of how well those students tend to do upon graduation, as proof that, given the chance, these are beneficial and meritorious admits. So discrimination on the basis of race is justified there. Should legacy admits thus be able to defend their admission by demonstrating either that (a) they could be admitted under "traditional" admission standards (if such a thing exists anymore), or (b) they do extremely well once they graduate?

I want to make sure I understand the whole picture - we'll get more athletes through via scholarships and NCAA violations, more African-Americans in under affirmative action quotas, illegal Hispanics in under the DREAM Act (if we can ever get it passed), but we'll insist that affirmative action doesn't apply to Jews or Asians, and we'll make admitting upper-middle-class whites suspect and presumptively invalid.

Instead of addressing the core reasons why certain groups are underrepresented in college admissions, these kinds of approaches operate to fudge the admissions structure so that those disparities are obscured. That serves no one, but it makes the advocates of these policies feel better about themselves.

If I were on the admissions team of second- and third-tier institutions, I would be salivating at the prospect of this. All those students who can no longer get into to the "top tier" institutions will now be forced to look lower in the food chain. Delicious.

14. badger74 - September 22, 2010 at 06:39 pm

The author provides zero support that the legacy admits are unqualified for the colleges they attend or that they perform any worse in college than the non-legacy admits. Perhaps the entire idea that the "best student" on paper will really perform much better than the other student admits is suspect.

15. 2tor2tor - September 23, 2010 at 07:40 am

Is there a list of colleges that use legacy preferences?

16. kahlenberg - September 23, 2010 at 10:28 am

Thanks for all these interesting and provocative comments. I'm going to respond soon on the "Innovations" blog that I write for the Chronicle.

For the moment, here are answers to two factual questions raised on issues I won't be discussing in the blog post.
1. Yes, Texas A&M has dropped legacy preferences.
2. We have a list of which national research universities in the top 100 according to U.S. News & World Report employ legacy preferences and which do not. The data are found in Chad Coffman's chapter in our book, Affirmative Action for the Rich, pp. 119-121. The Coffman chapter is available online. See http://tcf.org/list.asp?type=PB&pubid=723

17. 2tor2tor - September 23, 2010 at 11:22 am

Thanks, can't wait to read the book.

18. legolomb - September 23, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Assuming that legacy admissions are material (e.g., 10% of the total admissions to selective school would have been denied admission were they not legacies), what is the real impact on the student body? As others have stated, admissions is a zero sum game, so each legacy enrollment (no necessarily admission) drops someone else. But who is being dropped? Is there any way to determine if it is a deserving, poor, minority applicant, or the next door neighbor to the legacy? Nothing in this article indicates in what way things would really be different if legacy admissions were eliminated.

19. xtrcrnchy4 - September 23, 2010 at 04:46 pm

This article demonstrates a whole lot of sloppy thinking and certainly wouldn't pass in my classes of undergraduates. One example: He says it's a myth that legacy admits are legal and then trots out the one case that talks about the issue (which held them to be legal). Instead of law, he offers the musings of law journal authors. My favorite is the "Titles of Nobility" notion. Another is where he offers the contrived "myth" that legacy admission is protected by academic freedom and, then, to refute that, talks about Bakke and Gratz as cases about ancestry bias. By making these fantastic leaps in logic, the author doesn't even refute his own arguments. He offers little more than conjecture, irrelevant facts, and appeals to class-based division. He is assuming that all of us higher-ed readers are as suspicious of wealthy white people as he is and want to snuff out all privileges based on money, replacing it with privileges based on test-taking ability, the usual tactic of people whose main achievements in life are high grades and test scores in school. This is all cloaked in the claims to create a "pure meritocracy," which he quotes often.

20. djb1972 - September 23, 2010 at 06:47 pm

If you read Daniel Golden's book, The Price of Admission, you will find that the groups that lose out due to legacy preferences are Asians, and to a lesser extent, Jews. It is a form of discrimination against people of Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry.

21. jontv - September 23, 2010 at 06:47 pm

I have no qualms about calling for the end to all "legacy" admissions programs. As far as I'm concerned, there is no denying it's a mechanism that serves to extend and reinforce privilege without any justification that's not based on classist and/or racist assumptions.

I would be interested to know, however, what happens to graduates of colleges that take legacy into account in the admissions process. To the point: does a degree from a legacy-loving institution really open significant doors for non-legacy students? Or does privilege just find another way to express itself down the road?

I suspect I know the answer to those questions. That doesn't change my opposition to legacy programs -- we should fight inequality wherever we can -- but I think the inevitability of economic privilege adds a slightly chilling perspective to the controversy.

22. jbrag - September 24, 2010 at 01:09 pm

Chad Coffman's chapter in the book listing colleges with legacy preferences is not accurate.

MIT does not have nor has it ever provided a legacy preference.

23. marysandra - September 25, 2010 at 09:22 am

There is indeed, some misuse of legacy admissions. In our family, our ability to tap into this practice was started by an Irish immigrant grandfather who labored on the docks of Boston to put himself through "the University on the streetcar line." Since then, his descendents have gone to the 'streetcar line' school and branched out to many other Ivy League schools. However, they have all been students who had a high probablility of acceptance to any school they chose. Our best inheritance from Grandpa was a capacity for hard work and a love of excellence, humor, and family. All families deserve a 'grandpa' like this one.

24. reidmc - September 27, 2010 at 01:04 am

Having looked into this a bit, and talked about legacy admits with a lot of college admissions directors and deans, it appears that the effect of legacy on admissions varies widely across colleges and universities. And though I agree with some of the writer's assertions, his arguments, supporting material and approach (Strawman 101) are not very compelling.

I'd be interested in what the writer believes are the ideal criteria (prioritized) for university/college admissions.

25. gplm2000 - September 27, 2010 at 09:11 am

ARTICLE: "The children of alumni generally make up 10 to 25 percent of the student body at selective institutions. The proportion varies little from year to year, suggesting "an informal quota system," Wild statement! Secondly, what does it matter since the real numbers are low and affect few students.

There is no evidence that a legacy admission is bad for the college or eliminates a fully qualified student. It is mostly speculation by civil rights advocates. They want to continue race-based affirmative action programs, whether qualified students or not. To justify their illegal programs, they want to eliminate legacies.

26. bceagle21 - September 27, 2010 at 10:32 am

Agreed with supertatie, xtrchruncy4, and marysandra.

Universities(especially private ones) have a right to determine what kind of student body, and consequently what kind of university culture, they want. A valid goal may be to create a sense of community and family amongst its alumni. Whatever the original motives of legacy admissions, its present day purpose seems to be just that. I worked hard to get in and attend a very selective university - I expect that if my children work equally hard, our family's history and support of the institution will be taken into consideration. This is particularly important now that affirmative action and other programs of dubious benefit are tying the hands of admissions committees.

I would be interested to see exactly how some of this data were "controlled." The article as posted here seems mostly an editorial. I am certain that the book should contain more. Specifically as others have mentioned, what about legacies that are qualified to begin with? My alma mater has no qualms about its legacy program, but they need to be able to succeed there and thus they are not being admitted without substantial qualifications. Juxtapose this with the same university's program to admit "disadvantaged inner city minorities" who are not qualified... and have high rates of failure. Universities are not places to correct previous educational inequities - try it started at Kindergarten and grade school.

27. bradleyhockey - September 27, 2010 at 10:37 am

If MIT or Cal Tech admitted legacies they would fail out the first year- it doesn't happen totally ridiculous. These 2 schools with their intense grad level engineering programs (first 2 years mandatory) cannot support 'legacy lite programs'- there is absolutely no place to hide in these institutions for those kind of student camper attendees. The intense intellectual culture doesn't support or seduce that sort of 'client' nor do they offer the typical ivy league 'pizza on the piazza' overseas travel programs to avoid scholarship for a few years.

28. fizmath - September 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Just wondering, how does a school verify that an applicant is truly a legacy applicant? What if a student claims that his great grandfather attended the school? How is this verified?

29. oldcommprof - September 27, 2010 at 03:01 pm

Before going too far in touting Berea College as a model for prospering without the supposed donations that legacies generate, it would be no less than a matter of honesty to acknowledge the sources of the college's stunning per capita endowment, which allows the institution to forgo student tuition entirely.

In the 1920s seed money was provided by a couple of dozen wealthy individuals unconnected to the college, but taken by its mission of serving the poor. Since then, it has continued to grow the endowment through foundation and corporate benefactors, making it nearly unique among American colleges and universities and therefore of limited utility in supporting the premise of this article.

30. bazan - September 28, 2010 at 09:57 am

I will read the book for more information. But it is sure that the last argument for legacy ("every one does it") is false. For example in France the elite institutions, called "Grandes Ecoles", are based on a very severe selection of students on strict intellectual capacities. You can be the child of an alumnus, of the more generous sponsor of the institution, of the President of the Republic, it does not count. It is the same if you hold an Olympic gold medal in any sport. The only thing which count is to be among the best in competitive anonymous written examinations. We call that "republican merit", and it is considered as one of the main results of the French Revolution.

31. benlmiller - September 28, 2010 at 01:42 pm

Mr. Kahlenberg, I was moved by your article to write a critique here: http://likethemthatdream.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/legacy-admissions-a-response-to-richard-kahlenberg/

32. quantman - September 28, 2010 at 05:48 pm

There is a silver lining to this barbaric cloud hanging over the admission process. A bunch of smart,better-qualified and driven students are being 'given up' by the top schools to accept lesser candidates who are legacies. Note that this would not have happened if this was really a free and fair competition. The best schools would have selected the most meritorious (as it happens in say Korea or the Indian Institutes of Technology)leaving the 'dregs' to their inferior sisters. Consequently we now have better candidates at these schools leading to improvements in academics and research. Thus the second tier will be pushed upwards instead of being weighed down by lesser students. This will virtously improve higher education all around. Empirically there is evidence. Schools such as Washington University at St Louis, Carnegie Mellon are doing as well if not better than Harvard at training undergraduates in premed studies and computer science for example. Hopefully MIT should also adopt a huge legacy preference instead of just a developmental preference which will lead to even better student populations at schools such as SEAS at Columbia and UPenn.

33. gplm2000 - October 01, 2010 at 09:44 am

Quantman: "A bunch of smart,better-qualified and driven students are being 'given up' by the top schools to accept lesser candidates who are legacies. Note that this would not have happened if this was really a free and fair competition." Simply not true. First, legacy schools require that the student be within a range of regular admission standards. Second, free and open competition does not include affirmative action preferences which bump more qualified students. It is interesting that you whine about legacy admissions, yet say nothing about privileged admissions based on ethnicity, gender, race, disabilities, and soon GBLT students.

34. sailabill - October 01, 2010 at 03:21 pm

This issue is certainly real and significant, even at the public national military academies, which I hope your study examined as well. Sailabill

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