At the end of this academic year, Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Jeffrey Brenzel, will return to the classroom. As the college ushers a new face into the admissions office, it’s time to initiate a new era for admissions practices by eliminating a policy conceived in elitism, dedicated to the proposition that not all applicants are created equal. At Yale and beyond, institutions of higher education would benefit from eliminating the unfair practice of legacy preference.
There are many motivations that drive the policy of giving advantage to applicants whose parents or family members are alumni. Legacy applicants continue a loyal family tradition, legacy preference is an effective tiebreaker in admissions, it’s assumed that legacy applicants come from intellectually rich and educationally prepared backgrounds, and legacy preference ensures that schools remains closely connected with alumni, who may reciprocate generously.
Giving preference to legacy applicants, however, has its roots in the troublesome historic practice of trying to propagate a white educational elite. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, explains that “legacy preferences began after World War I, part of an effort to curtail the enrollment of immigrant students, particularly Jews, at Ivy League colleges.” He goes on to note that legacies are still disproportionately white, citing findings 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.” “This racial disparity,” he concludes, “is likely to continue for legacies in the next generation.”
At Yale, having alumni family members is no insignificant asset. According to Dean Brenzel, the college treats “legacy status as a positive factor in the evaluation process, and in recent years legacies have been admitted at about three times the rate of non-legacies.” He cautions, however, that “the degree of advantage does not correspond to the difference in admit rates, because legacy applicants on average present academic qualifications substantially stronger than non-legacy applicants. In other words, the average legacy applicant is more competitive in the process, even without any regard paid to legacy status.”
The question is then: If the children of alumni are, on average, “more competitive” to begin with, why do they need an extra boost?
Out of 1,351 students who entered Yale in 2011, 182 had parents who attended Yale for undergraduate or graduate school. That’s 13.5 percent of the incoming class, an astonishing figure when you consider that if you met seven random freshmen at Yale last year, chances are one of their parents attended the institution. This is more than a preference given to break ties; it’s blatant nepotism.
Many institutions contend that all students benefit from the resources secured through legacy preference, which potentially fund financial aid to low-income students, staff salaries, or new facilities. Accepting the children of alumni at higher rates might be seen as an unspoken quid pro quo—we’ll take your kids, you’ll buy us a new chem lab. Yet this logic is flawed. Yale’s legacy policy prioritizes the school’s financial interests over its stated mission to find “exceptionally promising students of all backgrounds.” When questioned about the percentage of legacy students who identified as students of color or the percentage of legacy students on financial aid, Yale’s admissions office replied: “we don’t track or publish these kind of subgroup statistics.” A 1991 study at the comparable institution Harvard does shed some light, finding that legacy advantage disappeared almost entirely when a legacy applicant inquired about financial aid.
While exceptions exist, it’s fair to claim that the children of those who attended elite colleges are likely to have advantages distinct from those whose parents were not so lucky. Coming from a home that, on average, is wealthier and emphasizes education is no small advantage. The single greatest correlating factor in whether you will attend college is whether your parent attended college. This is the ultimate unfairness of legacy preference: Even if it is only used as a tiebreaker, it breaks the tie in the wrong direction. Non-legacy kids are more likely than legacy kids to have succeeded in the face of obstacles, but in a theoretical “tie” with a legacy applicant, selective schools take the legacy.
As Yale’s administrators decide on a direction for the office of admissions, they should consider ending a practice that elevates those already advantaged in a misguided attempt to secure donations. When Yale gives an unneeded advantage to students of a certain background—mostly wealthy, mostly white—it detracts from its mission. Legacy preference not only negatively affects non-legacy students, it has a detrimental effect on Yale by reducing the diversity of backgrounds among its students that the university claims to support and cherish.