Amherst College will no longer give children of alumni preference in admissions, ending a longstanding policy criticized for primarily benefiting white, wealthy students and undercutting efforts to create a more racially diverse student body.
The private liberal arts college became one of the first highly selective schools to abandon the practice and raised hopes among critics of so-called legacy admissions that other top-tier schools will follow suit.
“Now is the time to end this historic program that inadvertently limits educational opportunity by granting a preference to those whose parents are graduates of the college,” Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, said in a statement Wednesday. “We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status.”
Legacy students have represented about 11 percent of each incoming class, the college said. Coupled with an expansion of financial aid, the college’s decision to end the preference was intended to send “a clear signal to prospective students that its education is within reach for all.”
Higher education specialists said the move, while affecting only a small portion of students enrolling in college, marked a symbolic shift.
“The existence of legacy preferences sends a terrible signal to students that even if you work hard, even if you’ve overcome obstacles, we’re going to hold it against you that your parents did not attend this institution,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of the book “Affirmative Action for the Rich.”
Largely confined to the United States, legacy policies have faced increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly after private data from Harvard University became public during a discrimination lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admission. From 2014 to 2019, children of Harvard alumni were far more likely to be accepted than nonlegacy applicants. Legacy students were accepted at a rate of 33.6 percent compared with less than 6 percent for nonlegacies.
Such students are disproportionately white and wealthy because they reflect the admissions policies of earlier classes. Supporters of legacy policies say they strengthen family loyalty and fund-raising efforts, and that children of graduates are typically strong candidates in their own right. They also tend to be wealthier, which allows schools to direct their financial aid to lower-income students.
Viet Andy Nguyen directs the EdMobilizer coalition, which is leading a group of young alumni in a donations boycott in order to end legacy admissions at a cluster of selective schools, including Yale, Harvard, Swarthmore, and Williams. Nguyen said Amherst’s decision provided a “morale boost” in an uphill battle.
“We’re very excited,” Nguyen said. “Amherst is one of the schools we were targeting.”
Johns Hopkins University eliminated legacy preferences in 2014, but did not announce the shift until a few years later, when the school’s president wrote an essay explaining his aversion to “this form of hereditary privilege in American higher education, particularly given this country’s deeply ingrained commitment to the ideals of merit and equal opportunity.” In June, the state of Colorado banned legacy preference in its public colleges and universities.
Some researchers wonder why it’s taken so long.
“In my view, all colleges should stop legacy admissions,” said Natasha Warikoo, a Tufts University professor of sociology who has studied admissions and meritocracy. “There’s so much talk in higher education about improving access, and this is a policy that very clearly does the opposite.”
One factor that may have informed Amherst’s decision, Warikoo said, is the amount of wealth college endowments have amassed in recent years. While fewer than 2,000 students attend the liberal arts college, its endowment soared to $3.7 billion this year. Other wealthy colleges and universities also saw their investments rise. That may have made it easier to end the legacy preference, which some colleges credit for helping raise money from devoted alumni.
Amherst said it would increase its financial aid program by roughly $4 million, to $71 million per year, which will save low- and middle-income families thousands of dollars annually. The school said it would also enhance grant programs for high-need students, cut back work-study requirements from six to four hours per week, and formalize an emergency fund for students who experience unforeseen costs. The college accepts just 11 percent of its applicants.
“Our new data show families have less available income for education than we previously understood,” said Matthew McGann, dean of admission and financial aid. The new admission and financial aid policies are intended to increase “both the diversity and excellence of our extraordinary applicant pool,” he said.
Tuition at Amherst costs $76,800 per year, although almost 60 percent of students currently receive financial aid. Roughly 45 percent of US students at Amherst identify as people of color, according to the college.
Nguyen hopes Amherst is the first in a long line of selective schools that stop legacy admissions.
“I have no doubt that in the next three or four years, many more will follow. Then it will be a question of who will be the last?” Nguyen said. “No one wants to be the last.”