Viet Nguyen quickly realized what he was up against when he applied to Brown University as a high school senior. The California native, a child of Vietnamese immigrants, had top grades and was co-editor in chief of his high school newspaper. But looking up admissions statistics on the Internet, he saw that many of those admitted to Brown were the children of alumni, known as “legacies.” They got a special admissions boost.
“I realized there were also these structural things built into the system,” said Nguyen. At selective colleges with limited spots, giving preferential treatment to alumni children could make it that much harder for others to get in.
But Nguyen did get into Brown’s class of 2017, and he went on to become the student body president and an alumni member of the Brown board of trustees. Now a grad student at the Harvard Kennedy School, Nguyen is leading a national grass-roots campaign to end admissions preferences for alumni children at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown, and many other selective schools, including elite New England liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Williams, and Bowdoin.
The effort, driven by a core group of two dozen young activist alumni from top schools across the country, aims to create a more level playing field for all students — and to use the leverage of alumni themselves, with a donations boycott.
“I think folks understand it is inherently an unjust practice. Even folks who benefited from it and will benefit from it understand it is inherently unjust,” said Nguyen. “Getting rid of legacy admissions is a racial equity issue, it’s a class issue, it is a moral issue.”
After all, Nguyen asked, “Why should colleges give a leg up to people who already have so many advantages?”
College admissions preferences for alumni children are almost entirely a US phenomenon, with well-documented origins about a century ago, as Ivy League schools tried to limit surging attendance by Jews and other immigrant populations. Today, about three-quarters of the country’s most selective colleges consider applicants’ legacy status in admissions. Because legacy students reflect the demographics of earlier graduating classes, they tend to be disproportionately white and affluent.
Among Ivy League schools, legacies make up a sizable proportion of the student body: 14 percent of the current freshman class at Yale University, 13 percent at Dartmouth College, and 10 percent at Brown, for example, according to the colleges. A Harvard University spokeswoman declined to provide that information, but student surveys by the Harvard Crimson found that an average of about 16 percent of the classes of 2018-2025 said they had at least one parent who attended Harvard College.
Many colleges do not publish detailed admissions statistics. But at Harvard, the children of alumni are nearly six times more likely to be admitted than non-legacies, according to Harvard data released during a recent admissions lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions, as analyzed for SFFA by Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono. In the classes of 2014-2019, Harvard alumni children were accepted at a rate of 33.6 percent, compared with 5.9 percent for non-legacies.
Across the country, admissions preferences for alumni children are part of a complex, largely opaque process that often includes substantial boosts for recruited athletes, children of donors, under-represented minorities, and children of faculty and staff.
Colleges have long described legacy preferences as vital for school spirit and a sense of community. Universities “become part of who we are, and people have an affection and regard and special relationship with them from generation to generation,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus at The George Washington University, adding that legacy preferences are “in recognition of that.”
But legacy preferences are broadly unpopular in US surveys. Critics charge that giving the children of alumni an unearned admissions boost props up an anti-meritocratic system of hereditary privilege. It is “a relic that has no place in American society,” wrote Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, in “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” a 2010 book he edited about legacy preferences.
“It’s a thumb on the scale for already advantaged kids,” said Susan Dynarski, a professor of education at Harvard. “If you think of affirmative action as an effort to undo past injustices, legacy preferences do the opposite. They reinforce privilege and intensify inequality.”
The donations boycott is designed to build on past anti-legacy efforts. In 2018, 13 student and alumni groups linked to a dozen top colleges across the country endorsed an open letter calling for the reevaluation of legacy admissions. The letter was published by the EdMobilizer coalition, an advocacy group for first-generation and low-income college students cofounded by Nguyen.
Now the coalition is taking a bolder step. Using the slogan “Leave Your Legacy,” the campaign, set to launch in late September, calls for an end to legacy preferences at dozens of selective colleges. The effort is designed to turn the biggest argument for legacy admissions on its head.
“A lot of the reason legacy preferences in admissions have not been gotten rid of is a fear that it would cause an alumni uproar,” said Nguyen. “By creating this campaign, we’re taking that away. We’re saying there will be uproar if you don’t.”
Numerous colleges have stopped offering a legacy admissions boost in recent years. In 2020, Johns Hopkins University announced it had done so. With state legislation signed in May, Colorado recently banned such preferences at all public colleges. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology are among top colleges that do not consider legacy status.
Many colleges defend legacy preferences by saying they motivate alumni to make donations, which are vital to colleges and help provide financial aid for low-income students. Ending legacy preferences might threaten fund-raising efforts, some say.
Alumni donations are indeed a major source of revenue. Alumni gave more than $11 billion to US colleges and universities in the 2019–2020 academic fiscal year — about 22 percent of all voluntary support for them, according to a report by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, surveying hundreds of institutions of higher education. Billions more went to colleges from family foundations and “donor-advised funds,” both of which can serve as conduits for alumni giving, according to Ann E. Kaplan, author of the council’s annual reports.
But critics say there is no hard evidence that legacy admissions increase alumni generosity. They point to a 2010 study of the top 100 US universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, that found “no statistically significant evidence that legacy preferences impact total alumni giving.” The study also found that among colleges that abandoned legacy preferences between 1998 and 2008, there was “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving.”
Some top colleges have also defended legacy admissions by saying children of alumni are generally strong, well-prepared applicants who would inherently have a good chance of acceptance. A Harvard spokeswoman stated that legacy status “is one factor among many in the admissions process.” A Brown spokesman e-mailed that “admitting children of alumni does not affect access for first-generation and low-income students.”
The new boycott campaign plans to borrow the methods of political activism, including social-media outreach and a web-based tool that generates customizable e-mails for alumni and students to send to college officials. Nguyen, who has donated to Brown in the past, and others who join the campaign will pledge not to donate to their colleges until they eliminate legacy preferences.
Those involved in the campaign aim to build on their own networks of classmates and colleagues. “I’m reaching out to personal friends to let them know this is something very meaningful to me, to see if they will stand in solidarity,” said Gabriel Reyes, a member of the EdMobilizer advisory board and a doctoral student at Stanford University.
The campaign is strongly pro-affirmative action, said Nguyen, who believes universities should be “equalizers for those who have been systemically marginalized, whether by race, class, or other identities.” Fellow campaigner Shawn Young, a Brown alumnus, said their efforts come at a key moment for the country. “This campaign is grounded in racial justice. We’ve gone through a national reckoning,” Young said.
During a brisk Zoom campaign planning meeting last Sunday, alumni and students from schools including Princeton University, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and the University of Chicago dove into the campaign’s three-phase strategy, which includes an open letter to be endorsed by student and alumni groups. Ultimately, the campaigners hope to garner public statements of support from college faculty, donors, and other influential voices.
“I think the strategy is brilliant,” said Kahlenberg of the campaign. “There’s this idea that persists that the reason you provide legacy preferences is to encourage or entice alumni to give more. And so an effort to do the opposite, to encourage alumni to boycott if an institution uses legacy preferences, goes right at the central justification.”
Evan Mandery, an author and professor of criminal justice at City University of New York who cofounded the Harvard Legacy Project, a group of students and alumni opposing legacy preferences, also voiced support for the boycott. “These efforts are long overdue and vitally important, and the more people get the message about elite colleges’ failure to live up to their promise of promoting socioeconomic diversity, the better,” said Mandery.
“The way you get these kinds of elite institutions to change is through a moral argument,” said Natasha Warikoo, a Tufts University professor of sociology who has researched attitudes toward admissions policies. “I think there’s enough support for ending legacy admissions among graduates of these institutions that it would gain support, and I think there’s a growing movement among the wealthy in this country to recognize the undue privileges that they have.”
Of course, it remains unclear whether colleges are open to change, and whether the campaign will gain traction among many alumni, who may feel reluctant to take a potential benefit away from their own children. “Most alumni at selective colleges are politically liberal and express concern about racial and economic equality in society. And so this campaign will put that to the test,” said Kahlenberg.
“We don’t know how this will go,” said Nguyen. “But I think that us raising this issue and mobilizing folks is better than sitting in silence and hoping that something miraculous will happen.”
Rebecca Ostriker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeOstriker.