The easiest way to make money in America is to be born rich. And that’s not just because fortunes are passed down from generation to generation, but also because wealthy families and their social networks tend to have a firm grip on the opportunities that can lead people to get ahead. Few traditions, if any, expose that grip more than legacy admissions at elite universities, where admissions officers give preferential treatment to children of alums — a group of people who universities rely on for generous donations — at the expense of bringing in more students from less privileged backgrounds.
That’s why when Amherst College, an elite liberal arts school, announced recently that it would end its practice of legacy admissions, it was met with a heap of good press. And while the praise is warranted — ending an unfair system of any sort ought to be cause for celebration — Amherst is still home to an extremely small student body, of under 2,000 people, and its move toward legacy-blind admissions is merely a drop in the bucket in the world of higher education. For Amherst’s decision to make a meaningful change, other institutions must follow its lead, as this editorial board has argued before.
Amherst is not alone: MIT, Johns Hopkins, CalTech, and Pomona College are among other elite universities that have decided to forego legacy admissions. But the reality is that these schools represent a minority among their peers, where legacy admissions tend to represent a significant share of student bodies. Over a third of the next graduating class at Harvard, for example, is made up of legacy students with a relative who also attended Harvard. And this system is deeply unfair: According to a review of the top 30 colleges in the United States, legacy students were 45 percent more likely to be admitted than non-legacy students. (At Harvard, legacy applicants’ acceptance rate was five times higher than those from families without a connection to the school.)
Ending preferential treatment to children of alums certainly won’t fix all of the problems with admissions processes, but it would contribute to a fairer system and a less insular student body. After all, legacy students tend to be rich and white — people who already have plenty of advantages — and effectively holding spots for them only makes it harder for these schools to bring in a more diverse range of students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. At Notre Dame, for example, the total number of legacy students in the class of 2024 is five times the size of the total number of Black students.
But schools should go further than ending legacy admissions: One of the promising aspects of Amherst’s decision is that it was also coupled with adding $4 million to its financial aid budget — a sign that the school is taking seriously its commitment to increasing diversity. Because while ending legacy admissions is a step in the right direction, tuition and living expenses are the biggest barrier to entry for students from low-income families. When Johns Hopkins eliminated legacy admissions, the share of legacy students declined from 12.5 percent to 3.5 percent, while the share of students who were eligible for Pell grants grew from 9 percent to 19.1 percent. Increasing spending on grant money would help bring in more students from lower-income backgrounds, as well as first-generation college students.
Increasing diversity through fairer admissions processes may also require colleges to do away with giving advantages to athletes. The typical college athlete is white and affluent because their families can afford to spend thousands of dollars to train their children to be athletically competitive at the collegiate level, not to mention the resources and recruiting networks that exist at private schools. Thirty-two percent of Amherst’s students participate in varsity athletics — all part of a conference that’s about 77 percent white. Though the school is taking big steps to improve diversity — roughly 45 percent of its students identify as people of color — it could always do more, as should other schools that have yet to make as much progress as Amherst. (According to Matt McGann, Amherst’s dean of admissions and financial aid, the school is making progress in diversifying its athletes, with 40 percent of the first-year athletic students being domestic students of color. “That’s not quite as diverse as non-athletes at the college,” McGann told the Globe editorial board, “but it’s much closer than it is at a number of places, and it’s much closer than it was in the past at Amherst.”)
One of the reasons elite schools get concerned about ending legacy admissions is that it could hinder their fund-raising efforts by giving graduates less incentive to donate to the school. But research has shown that legacy admissions have little to no impact on someone’s likelihood of donating to the school. In fact, schools that have already ended legacy admissions have not seen a major dent in their donations. So while ending legacy admissions might anger some alums here and there, it doesn’t require much courage to do so.
It also happens to be the right thing to do. “I’m hearing from a lot of members of our community — alums, faculty, students — who are really proud that the college has made a principled decision,” McGann said. “We’re already seeing some evidence of invigorating a number of the members of our community.” So other schools should ask themselves: What’s holding them back from joining Amherst?
Clarification: An earlier version of this editorial said more than a third of graduating Harvard students are legacies. While a third of students have relatives who attended Harvard, only about 14.5 percent are children of alumni, the university’s definition of legacy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.