The past decade has seen a vast increase in student involvement in the college application process. A 2009 National Association for College Admissions Counseling report shows that the number of overall applications has increased by 24 percent since 2002, and the number of applications individuals are submitting is also growing. With this increase comes an applicant’s desire for better stats, better recommendations and better essays–a way to stand out from the crowd. However, recent evidence shows that a deciding factor in admissions doesn’t weigh on the applicant’s achievements but someone else’s: their parents.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, a new study published by Michael Hurwitz, student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, reveals the impact of the legacy on college admissions. Hurwitz reviewed 30 unnamed colleges and their 133,236 applicants in 2007. The article says it is very likely the colleges surveyed were Ivy League universities and other selective private colleges.
“Colleges often claim that legacy preferences are just a ‘tie-breaker,’ but research suggests the weight of the preference can increase one’s chances of admissions very significantly,” said Richard D. Kahlenburg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a non-profit research organization.
Kahlenburg, editor of the 2010 book “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preference in College Admissions,” said that a legacy most often applies to the children of alumni, but can also extend to other relations such as grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.
Both Hurwitz’s and Kahlenburg’s research shows that, on average, ten to 25 percent of selective colleges are made of legacies, a much higher number than previously thought. Applicants with parent graduates were also seven times more likely to be accepted, and those with other relations were twice as likely to be admitted. Their research indicates that admissions consider the legacy status to be the equivalent of adding 160 points to their SAT score, on the 1600 scale, though being a legacy will help an applicant’s chance the most only if their initial test scores are high.
Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” and contributor to Kahlenburg’s book, said that legacy preference began right after World War I, when many qualified Jewish students were applying to selective colleges like Harvard and Yale.
“These colleges…wanted to find a way to limit their enrollment without appearing to be anti-Semitic,” Golden said in an e-mail interview. “Preference for the children of alumni — few of whom were Jewish — was one of their solutions, along with preference for students from rural areas.”
Senior Susie McClannahan proposed eliminating alumni preference as her bill this year at Youth in Government after reading recent statistics on the issue.
“I thought this issue wasn’t discussed enough or considered very much,” McClannahan said. “People don’t have an idea how big of a role legacy preference can play into college.”
McClannahan is planning on attending the University of Kansas next year, where both her mother and grandfather attended. McClannahan said this connection didn’t influence her decision to apply—her parents wanted her to go to an in-state school, and the University of Kansas was the only one that offered Korean. Though she doesn’t feel that legacy preference affected her acceptance into the university, she said that she has been contacted by its alumni association with offers of special tours and events.
“[Colleges] make the choice to accept applicants who aren’t as competitive as other applicants simply because of who their parents were, which I think is absolutely unfair,” McClannahan said.
McClannahan’s sentiment seems to be echoed by much of America. A 2004 poll by the Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that 75 percent of Americans oppose the practice of alumni preference. Senior Peter Bautz does not think this practice should be eliminated in all instances, but instead supports using alumni preference as a tie-breaker between two candidates.
Bautz applied to three schools as a legacy: Colorado College, his mother’s former school, Amherst College, his dad’s alma mater, and Harvard University, where his dad attended both medical and law school. He thinks his connections to the colleges probably influenced his decision to apply, especially in the cases of Colorado College and Amherst, which he said were lesser-known schools. While he has not been approached by representatives as a legacy, he knows that his status might help his chances somewhat.
“If you have a parent who is an alumni…but you’re being compared to someone of equal application merit…and the one who has the parent who went there gets picked, I think I’m more okay with that,” Bautz said. “Yeah, it’s sort of old-school and a little snobbish, but I think that’s a better system than just saying, ‘Well, your parents give a lot of money, so we’re going to accept you.”
A speculated reason for the continued practice of legacy preference is that it encourages alumni to donate to their alma maters, an issue Kahlenburg said colleges keep “shrouded in secrecy.” His research, however, indicates that legacy preference does not increase these donations. According to Golden, since most elite private universities use legacy preference, it is hard to determine how much of an impact the preferential treatment has on fundraising. However, he said the California Institute of Technology does not weigh admissions under legacy preference, but they still receive many donations and endowments.
Additionally, Golden believes that, if legacy preference was eliminated, overall private donations would not be affected, just rearranged. For example, an upset alumnus might stop giving to his former college, but would then start giving to new schools associated with his family. However, Golden does believe that admissions all come down to one thing: money.
“If a university is hoping for a multi-million dollar donation from an alumnus, it will lower its standards very far to admit the child. If the alumnus is not wealthy, the university will only give a small edge to the child,” Golden said.
This reasoning is what makes McClannahan and Kahlenburg against alumni preference, since first-generation college applicants have no colleges they can apply to as a legacy. Students with parents who went to college are more likely to be able to give generous donations.
“Legacy preferences help a group that is already pretty advantaged on average,” Kahlenburg said. “In my view, ancestry discrimination is wrong, and I think legacy admissions should be abolished.”