Legacy preferences are unfair, but many schools see them as lucrative

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The Economist explains

TODAY THOUSANDS of hopeful students find out whether they have got into America’s prestigious Ivy League universities. The admissions process is fiercely competitive, but some applicants have a helping hand. Roughly three-quarters of the top 100 universities in America give an admissions boost to children of alumni. These privileged progeny are known as “legacies”. The policy, or at least its brazenness, is unique to America (universities in other countries tend to be less open about their nepotism) and much more common among private universities, which include all Ivy League schools, than public ones. Other groups are also given preferential treatment, such as underrepresented minorities or athletes recruited to play on a university team. But legacy admissions are the hardest to justify—yet legacy admissions typically receive less opposition than programmes meant to boost minorities. Why do so many American universities give preference to the children of former students? And is this policy here to stay?

The practice began in the 1920s, when a wave of new arrivals to America stirred anti-immigrant prejudice. Universities started looking beyond academic criteria in part to limit the number of Jewish students. They began to consider qualities such as “character” and whether an applicant’s father had attended. Today, legacy preference still gives a big advantage particularly to rich and white applicants, who are most likely to have a parent who attended university. In 2019, 14.6% of Harvard’s first-year undergraduates had a parent who also attended as an undergraduate, whereas only 2% of new students did at MIT, an elite university with no legacy preference.

The justification for the policy today is financial. Americans already tend to have a strong connection to their alma maters. Britons, for example, don’t have university bumper stickers on their cars like Americans do, says Mitchell Stevens of Stanford University. Universities with legacy preference argue that it strengthens these bonds further and increases alumni donations, which can in turn be used to help disadvantaged students. Private universities in America rely more on individual donors than universities in other countries. But the data are unclear to what extent legacy preference actually boosts fundraising. Children of stingy alumni still get an advantage. And plenty of rich non-alumni are happy to buy their children a spot by donating a gym.

The days of legacy preference may be numbered. Some 68% of Americans oppose it, and as the country grapples with privilege in many areas of life, university admissions are coming under scrutiny. For example “Operation Varsity Blues”, a new documentary on Netflix, tells of how the rich and famous used scams to secure for their children slots meant for student-athletes. Johns Hopkins University in Maryland announced last year it had dropped legacy preference to make admissions fairer. The shift away from legacy preferences may also be a side-effect of other changes in admissions policies. Several universities, including the University of California, abolished legacy preferences soon after dropping affirmative-action policies based on race (through a statewide referendum in the case of California). Giving an advantage only to privileged applicants no longer seemed tenable. The Supreme Court is considering taking up a case concerning Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions, which gives black and Latino applicants an advantage. If a decision in that case ends racial preference in university admissions, it would threaten legacies’ leg-up too. But for now, universities are facing a pandemic-induced fiscal crisis. Many are reluctant to abandon what they see as a money-spinner.