In its case against Harvard University, Students for Fair Admission argued that white applicants were more likely to be admitted than similarly qualified Asian American applicants. The Supreme Court responded in June by banning universities nationwide from explicitly considering an applicant’s race when evaluating candidates. But those who think the court’s decision will end the advantages afforded to white students are mistaken.
We analyzed nearly 700,000 college applications from white and Asian American students and found that the admissions practices at selective schools reward the privileged — who are disproportionately white. Without rethinking how elite colleges select students, it’s likely that Asian American applicants will continue to be admitted at lower rates than similarly qualified white applicants.
Much of the admissions gap between white and Asian American students stems from policies that favor the children of alumni. Many colleges openly acknowledge their favorable treatment of legacy applicants, but our data reveal just how big a boost these students enjoy. We estimate that legacy applicants were, on average, 2 to 3 times as likely to be admitted to a selective college than non-legacy applicants with comparable academic credentials. And legacy applicants are much more likely to be white. Among high-achieving applicants, white students were 3 times as likely as East Asian students and 4 times as likely as Southeast Asian students to be legacy applicants. White students were a whopping 6 times as likely as South Asian students to be legacy applicants.
Legacy preferences don’t just disadvantage Asian applicants. We found that high-achieving white students were about twice as likely as high-achieving Black and Hispanic students to be legacy students. Legacy policies also reduce the number of low-income students at selective colleges. We found that high-achieving students who received an application fee waiver — a proxy for financial need — were one-eighth as likely to be legacy students than those who didn’t.
Much of the legacy bump probably comes from an explicit boost that many colleges give children of alumni. Some of the disparity also probably comes from the soft advantages granted to alumni. For instance, some colleges host sessions at reunion events that advise alumni and their children on navigating the application process.
To carry out our analysis, we examined anonymized application materials submitted by Asian American and white students to a group of selective colleges for five years, starting in the 2015–2016 application season. Our data include information on students’ high school GPAs, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. Because admissions works differently for recruited athletes, we exclude likely recruits from our main analysis.
Twenty years ago, Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard’s president at the time, argued that “legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.” There’s a certain allure to intergenerational institutions where students can trace their family’s lineage. But Harvard isn’t Hogwarts. Merit, not parentage, should be key to admission. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action, Summers has now called for elite universities to eliminate legacy preferences.
Another strike against legacy preferences is its dark past, rooted in prejudice. In the 1920s, Jewish students started attending Ivy League universities like Harvard, Columbia, and Yale in large numbers. Dismayed by this development, colleges adopted legacy policies as one way to reduce Jewish enrollment without setting explicit quotas. Current legacy preferences may not be motivated by racial bias, but our analysis shows they still have a discriminatory effect.
The court’s ban on affirmative action is likely to increase the total number of white and Asian students — and reduce the number of Black and Hispanic students — at elite colleges. Without radically rethinking how these colleges select students, racial minorities — including Asians — are likely to be admitted at lower rates than similarly qualified white students. The Department of Education is now reviewing Harvard’s preferential treatment of legacy applicants after advocacy groups argued that the practice harms Black, Hispanic, and Asian applicants.
Fortunately, eliminating legacy preferences is low-hanging fruit. University officials could simply choose to end the practice in time for this fall’s application cycle. MIT and Caltech have long eschewed legacy preferences. Over the last decade, Johns Hopkins University, Pomona College, and Amherst College have followed suit. Wesleyan University eliminated legacy preferences last month. If universities don’t act on their own, legislators could force their hand. A recently introduced bill in Massachusetts seeks to tax wealthy universities that give preferential treatment to the children of alumni and redistribute the money to community colleges.
The prestige and influence of elite universities comes from a belief that they’re meritocracies, with admission reserved for the talented few. That nearly all these universities openly favor the children of alumni exposes the myth. In reality, selective colleges are closer to country clubs than some would like to admit. Ending legacy preferences in admissions would be a step in the right direction.
Josh Grossman is a PhD candidate in computational social science at Stanford University. Sabina Tomkins is an assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan. Lindsay Page is a professor of education policy at Brown University. Sharad Goel is a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.