Each year, many colleges showcase a profile of incoming classes that cites students’ ethnicity, gender, regional representation, and expected majors. But there’s one data point rarely included: the percentage of first years who were given admission preference because their parents or grandparents attended the school.
The century-old practice of legacy admissions, which overwhelming benefits white and wealthy students, is coming under heightened criticism as the US Supreme Court seems poised this year to bar the use of affirmative action in college admissions. Supporters of ending legacy preferences believe that case has given their cause momentum.
“If the Supreme Court says it’s not fair to consider race, then why on earth is it fair to consider who your parents are?” said James Murphy, deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now, a nonprofit think tank. “If you take away consideration of race, it will be important to get rid of anything that is working against diversity.”
Experts estimate that in colleges nationwide that use the practice, legacies account for 10 to 20 percent of undergraduate student populations.
An analysis of Harvard admissions data, which became public through the affirmative action case, found that legacies made up about 14 percent of students accepted to the university between 2010 and 2015. The acceptance rate for legacy applicants during that period was 33.6 percent, about 5.7 times higher than the acceptance rate for nonlegacy applicants, the researchers found.
Harvard declined to comment for this story.
State legislation filed earlier this year, meanwhile, calls for the end of legacy preferences in admissions at public and private colleges in Massachusetts.
“You win a privilege lottery from birth and somehow that is supposed to get you into college,” said Massachusetts Senator Lydia Edwards, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “That is insulting for those of us who are first-generation students trying to get into college.”
Viet Nguyen, a Harvard graduate student who in 2018 helped start a national grassroots organization that now advocates for ending legacy preferences, said the Varsity Blues Scandal also spotlighted how prestigious colleges have historically favored wealth. The investigation revealed how exam administrators and coaches accepted bribes from wealthy parents for admission slots.
Legacy admissions “perpetuate cycles of wealth and privilege,” Nguyen said.
His grassroots group, Ed Mobilizer, which has a network of 35 chapters across the United States, launched an alumni donation boycott in 2021 with the goal of asking alumni to e-mail the boards of their alma maters to say they will not donate until they end legacy preferences. About 6,000 alumni sent e-mails to the nation’s 30 most selective colleges, Nguyen said.
“There is strong momentum and I think a lot of universities in the next year will be reevaluating [legacy admissions],” he said. “For a long time it seemed like this was a practice that would never be knocked down. It was too entrenched in the system.”
Education Reform Now reported that about 100 colleges and universities have halted legacy preferences since 2015.
And public criticism of the practice appears to be growing. A 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Americans believe that legacy status should not be a factor in college admissions, up from 68 percent in 2019.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on complaints filed by the nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The group argues the colleges’ admissions processes that consider race lead to stereotyping and discrimination. The schools have defended their admissions policies, pointing to the benefits of campus diversity, which they say could not be achieved without the use of affirmative action.
While legacy admissions is not on trial, justices questioned in oral arguments whether elite universities’ defense of race-based affirmative action is at odds with the use of the practice.
Like Harvard, many other colleges in Massachusetts use the family preference, including Northeastern University, Boston College, Williams College, Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the College of the Holy Cross.
About 14 percent of students at Boston College currently are children of alumni, said a BC spokesperson. The other colleges did not share data on legacy students. Williams in a statement said that legacy students “may get a small benefit” at the end of the admissions process once they are selecting from “exceptionally qualified students.” Northeastern said it reviews applications “holistically,” taking into account multiple factors.
Proponents of legacy preferences say enrolling children, siblings, and grandchildren of alumni helps foster community and creates a more committed donor base. Alumni giving is part of the formula used by US News & World Report to create the annual “best college” rankings.
Vincent Rougeau, president of Holy Cross, said legacy admissions “can help build loyalty to the school.”
But Rougeau said if the practice “makes it more difficult for first generation students to get access, that is a problem. Like any practice of this type, it can be beneficial and it can be abused.”
He said that Holy Cross is not considering ending the practice at this time. He added that legacy students make up a “relatively small group of our entering class.”
Tufts University, which also considers legacy status in admissions, said it expects to review the approach after it completes an internal study. Some of Tufts’ graduate schools, including its medical school, have already ended the practice.
MIT, Boston University, Emerson College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Amherst College are among the local private schools that do not consider family legacy as a factor in admissions.
The current admissions cycle at Amherst, which selects the class of 2027, is the elite liberal arts school’s first that did not consider whether applicants’ parents attended, said Matthew McGann, the college’s dean of admission and financial aid.
In previous years, about 11 percent of Amherst’s incoming classes were composed of legacy students. McGann expects that number to be lower for the incoming class, although he said Amherst legacies are more likely to apply to the school than students without family connections.
“[Legacy] students were considered in the way thousands of other applicants were considered,” McGann said. “Early indications are that this will be good for Amherst College and it will be good broadly for equity.”
The legacy issue is not confined to private colleges. Massachusetts is one of five states where a majority of public colleges offer an admission advantage to the children of alumni, according to Education Reform Now.
A spokesperson for UMass Lowell said that applicants’ legacy status “is not a determining factor” for admittance, though it is one of many factors the public university considers. UMass Amherst stopped considering applicants’ family connections in 2019, a decision made to level the playing field for applicants, said Mike Drish, director of first-year admissions.
“It primarily had to do with the notion of access,” Drish said about the change. “UMass is unique because we’re a public flagship that’s in a region of a lot of private colleges and universities. I think for a number of years UMass acted a little bit more like those [private colleges] to be in the mix.”
Hilary Burns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Hilarysburns.