I’m Not a Legacy Student, But I Think Getting Rid of Legacy Admissions is a Terrible Idea

I’m Not a Legacy Student, But I Think Getting Rid of Legacy Admissions is a Terrible Idea
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Legacies on college campuses are getting shown the door. In higher education, schools are quietly doing away with legacy admissions, which allow children of alumni a competitive edge over other applicants — one that’s equivalent to 160 points added to their SAT scores.

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In a recent Atlantic essay, Ronald Daniels, president of John Hopkins University, explained why he ended legacy admissions on his campus. Daniels argues that the process disadvantages other, non-legacy student. He points out that legacy admissions, while common in the U.S., are not typical in other parts of the globe. It was a thoughtful piece, but not a particularly convincing one.

Noting that most of the world doesn’t have legacy admissions isn’t a point of argument, but rather one of observation. It says nothing about the worthiness of legacy admissions.

Moreover, Daniels’ suggestion that legacy admissions harm non-legacies is a natural, but nonetheless confused thought. He claims the legacy process diminishes the potential for other students to achieve social mobility by showing that the chances of a child in the lowest economic quintile reaching the highest quintile increases by 60% if that child attends one of America’s elite universities. However, Daniels fails to consider that these increased chances are, at least in part, because of the legacy admissions process — not in spite of them.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. I’m not a legacy admit. My parents are blue-collar workers, and my dad only attended classes at a state college. But I’ve felt the benefits of keeping legacies around at my school. 

The benefits of legacy admissions are, to a certain degree, about money. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. At elite universities, where the average income of graduates is in the upper strata, the generous gifts of a legacy’s parent (such as funds for specialty research) can be sizable.

Granted, when a donor with a child enrolled in their alma mater gives to the school, it’s hard to discern whether they gave money solely because of a legacy admission or for other reasons. But it’s also not hard to understand that a parent with a child at their university is more likely to be engaged there than elsewhere.

That engagement can go beyond a donation. For example, alumni with enrolled children might be more inclined to be involved at the campus career center, serving as a mentor for students currently enrolled and assisting them in obtaining coveted positions in their field.

In that same vein, consider the community that legacy admissions fosters. Multi-generational families often have a stronger connection to an institution than, say, a first-generation student who doesn’t have a family connected to the institution.

Schools like Harvard seek to benefit from an engaged and supportive alumni network that aids the institution by way of philanthropic giving, individual mentoring, professional opportunities, and volunteer work. Harvard grads, for instance, volunteer as alumni interviewers nationwide. A 2017 committee concluded that the benefits of this kind of alumni engagement were too great to do without. Harvard sees this type of direct engagement as part of a larger aim, in which the college seeks to create an atmosphere of community where alumni take part in the school “for the rest of their lives.” Legacy admissions is one way to encourage a flourishing and perpetual engagement.

The most important benefit of legacy admissions at elite colleges is its impact on social mobility. Putting non-legacy students in contact with legacy students creates social and professional connections that otherwise might never have occurred. It’s one of the greatest appeals of attending an elite college. People from a lower socioeconomic class become entrenched in elite social groups, getting access to networking and benefits of a well-connected and well-resourced professional tent. Rubbing elbows with the likes of the Obamas or Bloombergs may be more influential to the career of a low-income student than the education itself. Gaining access to upper-class professional networks affords non-legacy students the legacy edge. 

Legacy admits aren’t an affront to equal opportunity — they’re a boon to it. Without them, my chances at success after graduation would be much lower than they are now. And I’m not the only one who’s benefited, countless others have, too. And countless more will in the future. Let’s not take that away from them in the name of “fairness.”

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