Legacy in Admissions: Its Ramifications on the Value of Education

In order to examine how legacy status affects the value of education, one must first understand what legacy is and its negative consequences. Legacy is one’s “familial ties to an institution”. Many colleges use legacy status as a factor in admissions. In fact, “it is estimated that three-quarters of the top 100 research institutions and liberal arts colleges in the United States factor legacy status into their admissions decisions”. Though there are a few positive aspects of this policy, the negatives greatly outweigh them. 

The reason many colleges still factor in legacy is “as a way to respect tradition and acknowledge those who helped to lay the foundation on which the university is built”. It also provides an incentive for alumni to donate if they know their child will be applying in the future. This incentive is because “admissions offices will look at the alums history of financial contributions, service on boards or as an alumni interviewer”, etc. Though colleges will argue that they rely on alumni donations to fund the operations of the school, studies have shown that there is little to no connection between alumni donations and legacy in admissions. Joe Pinsker from The Atlantic states: “Dannenberg points to a study that tracked alumni giving from 1998 to 2008 at the top 100 American universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The study found ‘no statistically significant evidence’ that legacy preferences themselves make any given alum more likely to donate; instead, the study suggested, they simply allow schools to let in more children of wealthy alumni than they otherwise would. So since those wealthy alumni tend to donate more money, the legacy preference does appear to help colleges’ bottom line. But giving these students higher priority doesn’t seem financially vital: Seven schools tracked in the study did away with legacy preferences and didn’t see any large drop-off in donations”. Additionally, “one major study found that schools who grant legacy status actually had no fundraising advantage over schools who do not. In fact, two of the top eight U.S. schools with the largest endowments are MIT (27 billion) and Texas A&M (13.5 billion) which banned legacy-based admission over a decade ago”. 

Though there appears to be no direct tie between donations and legacy admissions, there would still be more incentive for colleges to choose legacy students if it meant maintaining a strong connection with their alumni. Additionally, one way colleges use legacy is as “a tiebreaker between equally strong applicants”. Using legacy as a tiebreaker gives a disproportionate advantage to those born into wealthy families and makes it harder for first-generation students to gain admission, since colleges may look to uphold their reputation and prestige over the quality of the candidate. According to a representative from Brown University, “When it comes to choosing among equally strong candidates, one consideration can be the natural affinity for the university that often emerges among children of alumni from Brown’s undergraduate college”. This is not a fair way to evaluate if a student is worthy of that spot because it has nothing to do with the students themselves, only their birthright. Furthermore, it makes it harder for some students who have put a lot of hard work and effort into their education to get into these schools if they are not from a family of alumni. 

Using legacy as a factor in admissions is also seen as a discriminatory and oppressive practice. Abril Castro from The Center for American Progress states, “legacy admissions policies have racist origins and continue to exclude underrepresented students of colorJust 26 percent of Black students, 20 percent of Hispanic students, 21 percent of Pacific Islander students, and 21 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students have a parent who attended college compared to more than half of white students. Therefore, this policy disproportionately benefits white, wealthy students. By removing this policy, the school [Johns Hopkins University] hoped to achieve a more equitable and diverse student body. As a result of the policy shift, the school began to see change both in terms of the racial composition of the student body and academic achievement”. Therefore, getting rid of legacy admissions would give colleges a better avenue to promote diversity and equality among their student bodies.

So how does the use of legacy have any effect on the value of education? Education at its core is the learning and applying of knowledge. Higher education builds upon the skills gained from secondary school education so one may excel in their chosen field. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to get a high-paying job without a graduate degree, let alone a college degree. In fact, “many entry-level jobs today now require a master’s and virtually all senior management and senior professional positions require a master’s” degree. The pressure to acquire a degree is just one reason that some people may only be attending college for the title and prestige they receive from it, not because they will actually learn something. Legacy promotes the idea that education may not be for the purpose of learning. Instead, it demonstrates how one can get into a school based on their lineage and not their hard work. Therefore, this may make college seem like a chore or some sort of game one wins by gaining a degree. The purpose of education is lost. If admissions took away the importance of being a legacy, there would be more of an incentive to work hard in order to get into college, emphasizing the importance and value of a good education.

The college admissions process is slowly but surely making strides for greater equity through improvements such as rethinking the role of legacy and other factors. By eliminating the use of legacy in admissions, it would promote the value of education and make the admissions process fairer for all.