The Legacy Bump

When my son and I met with the dean of admissions at my alma mater, he could not have been more accommodating. My son didn’t want to go, but I tricked him because they were holding the Cornell Open fencing competition that weekend and it made the perfect lure. He won, despite only being in high school, and they wanted him to fence for Cornell.* Plus, he was a direct legacy.

Of course, my son didn’t care. He didn’t want to go there, no matter how sweet the dean’s endearments. And he didn’t need my legacy bump to get where he wanted to go.

In a 2012 blog post, Chris Peterson, an assistant director in the M.I.T. admissions office, put the issue in stark terms. “I personally would not work for a college which had legacy admission because I am not interested in simply reproducing a multigenerational lineage of educated elite. And if anyone in our office ever advocated for a mediocre applicant on the basis of their ‘excellent pedigree’ they would be kicked out of the committee room. So to be clear: if you got into M.I.T., it’s because you got into M.I.T. Simple as that.”

He got into MIT. He was recruited for fencing, but as the coach made absolutely clear, he still had to be admitted on his own merit. He was. And it won’t do his children any good, as MIT doesn’t do legacy. So legacy admissions never did anything for me before, and it doesn’t appear that it will do anything for me in the future.

So I ought to be all for its elimination, as the New York Times editorial urges.

The policies originated in the 1920s, coinciding with an influx of Jewish and Catholic applicants to the country’s top schools. They continue today, placing a thumb on the scale in favor of students who already enjoy the benefits of being raised by families with elite educations.

It was born as a means to stem the tide of smart Jewish and Catholic immigrant kids from taking space that would otherwise belong to WASP families.

Preferential treatment for legacy admissions is anti-meritocratic, inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system. In short, it is an engine of inequity. Little wonder that it is unpopular with most Americans, yet supported by the affluent who both oversee the college admissions process and are its primary beneficiaries.

Certainly, there is nothing about having a parent who attended a particular college that has any inherent bearing on a student’s merit, and if they’re filling seats based on heredity, then those are seats that can’t be filled by the more worthy students. And since the alumni of elite schools tended to be wealthy and white, filling seats with their little darlings would naturally tend to perpetuate those characteristics.

These anachronistic policies have been called “affirmative action for the rich” and “affirmative action for whites.”

Is there any argument, any virtue, any justification for keeping legacy admissions?

Colleges counter that the children of alumni — partly by virtue of the education their parents received — are well qualified for admission into their schools. That raises the question: If the value of a degree is indeed generational (research shows that it very likely is), why do the progeny and grandprogeny of graduates deserve yet another thumb on the scale?

It may be that the children of smart alumni are similarly smart, and not just the idiot offspring of the American aristocracy. But if so, then why do they need legacy admissions if they can earn admittance on their own merit? The ding against legacy admissions isn’t necessarily that the students are dopes who could never get in without a leg up, but that they get a leg up to nudge them above equally worthy students.

The most obvious argument for legacy admissions is money.

Schools make various arguments about the value of legacy preference. Most often, they argue that it helps with donations, which in turn helps fund financial aid programs for needy students and the construction of facilities that help the entire organization.

There is a reason why odd names appear on ivy-covered buildings, but the Times argues that it’s not as legit a point as one might believe.

Research, however, has cast serious doubt on this line of reasoning. A group of researchers studied data from the top 100 schools in the country (again ranked by U.S. News) from 1998 to 2008 and found that “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”

Note the peculiar “total alumni giving” language, which seems to skirt the question. The donation angle bears upon one donor able and willing to pay for a building when needed rather than 10,000 donations that may ultimately come in.

Another argument that college presidents make is that multigenerational enrollment helps improve the institutional ethos, tightening the bonds of community for those lucky enough to be admitted.

There’s a family-like aspect to being a member of the college club, and that family bond grows tighter and more useful when it’s kept within the family as well. When ten generations of Whites attend Harvard, they might think of themselves as a Harvard family and be inclined to help other member of the family, even if they aren’t Whites.

That may be so, but it comes at a high cost in unfairness. College admission is a zero-sum proposition — for every legacy admitted, another promising applicant is denied the career and economic opportunity that a top degree can provide.

And this is where the argument against legacy admissions gets caught up in its own mess. While the argument for legacy admissions is mostly sentimental, the argument against it is to replace tradition with diversity.

Whatever the mechanism, it makes sense for a group of competitor schools to take the leap together, a mutual stand-down. Doing so would be in the best traditions of American higher education, which for decades has worked to extend opportunity to generations of poor and minority students.

It’s almost as if not having a parent who went to Harvard will give you the new leg up, whereas being a legacy is a mark against you. It’s good for diversity, but is it changing one unfair process for another, except the new one won’t pay for a new building? Then again, maybe it will but with names on the buildings that would make John Harvard roll in his grave.

*Cornell no longer has a men’s fencing team, an early victim of Title IX quotas. There is still a women’s team, but the men only have a competitive club.

23 thoughts on “The Legacy Bump

    1. delurking

      My school axed its wrestling team for the same reason, despite there being a group of wealthy donors willing to endow the team so that there would be zero wrestling team expenses to the university, in perpetuity. This stuff happens.

  1. Chris Van Wagner

    I was a financial aid kid with good SAT’s on need scholarship at a fine university in upstate NY in the 70’s. That college did and still does value legacy, unashamedly and admittedly an institutional core value. I fancied myself a character in an Horatio Alger novel, in my mind’s eye seeing myself rise into that class of folks who constituted the bulk of the campus: WASPy kids from entrepreneurial families, with lake homes and sailboats. I enjoyed their toys and retreats during my years there. But my integration into that class, whatever one calls it, ended upon graduation. I now read the alumni notes and campus updates, see the same names carved into yet newer and more expensive buildings, and realize that unless I was ready to coerce harder than you did in Ithaca, my time at this college was valuable but temporal. They DO benefit financially the incestuous way that legacy admissions encourage. And that money does benefit a whole host of needy upstate NY (and a few NJ and CT) kids in the ways claimed. But there is no entry into the caste, as it were, without becoming part of the same legacy system. Yet IMHO, that cannot occur without the accompanying money. So I think your son is far better off at MIT than my kids would have been at “Legacy University” which, nonetheless, did fully fund my own superb liberal arts education. So you’ll get no quarrel from this quarter with that approach: it was Legacy U that got me into law school in Ithaca. For what it’s worth.

    1. SHG Post author

      Personal anecdotes are the best anecdotes. That said, I understand. Like you, I came from nothing, and much as I was allowed to be present among the scions of the rich and famous, I would never be one of them. I didn’t even own a pink shirt.

      1. Sgt. Schultz

        Wait, does this mean we’re all allowed to tell our stories in the comment, because I’ve got tons of them. Did I ever tell you about the time my topsider soles fell off on the way to the hockey championship and I had no duct tape?

  2. Chris Van Wagner

    Indeed, my college girlfriend – whose roots were the bluest of bloods – was told after graduation (by her Chemical Bank VP father) that she needed to find a new boyfriend who was “one of their kind.” Fortunately for me, in hindsight.

  3. Moonstone

    Enthusiasm for MIT’s hard-core commitment to meritocracy may be tempered by the MIT Lab’s recent odyssey in reputation laundering of Epstein’s network.

  4. Richard Kopf


    This is a very interesting post. I truly mean that.

    But from a speck in vast flyover country, the post discusses a subject akin to the mating rituals of some recently discovered tribe in the Amazon alas without the photos of half-naked women. Come to think of it, if I recall correctly those tribes weren’t overly concerned with incest. And so, perhaps, we shouldn’t be overly concerned with legacy admissions. Frankly, (you can call me Frank), I doubt that anyone except a tiny sliver of a tiny sliver give two hoots. But, as I said, your post gave me a peek into the strange tribal practices of a group as unknown me as one might finds in the wilds of the Amazon. Thanks.

    All the best.


  5. Hunting Guy

    You could be a multi-generational legacy but if your family couldn’t pay for you I bet you wouldn’t get accepted.

    Let’s face it…. it’s all about putting paying butts in the seats, not education.

  6. JorgXMcKie

    I’ll bet lots of people could come up with anecdotes. But it’s a human problem because humans are so doggoned human. People in charge always want to favor some group over all the others. Or perhaps some groups oved most of the others.
    I would favor eliminating *all* forms of favoritism in choosing who gets into any college I suppose. No special entrance for athletes or ‘minorities’ (whatever that may currently mean) or anyone else who don’t meet reasonably stringent entrance requirements. Let the chips fall where they may.
    Ha! As if.

    1. SHG Post author

      Isn’t “stringent entrance requirements” just intellectual favoritism? And they don’t necessarily make for a decent football team.

  7. B. McLeod

    My folks didn’t go to college, and the state university I attended would not be much of a “legacy admission” plum, even if they followed the practice (as to which, I have no idea).

    But it occurs to me that in the main, the practice is both critical and necessary for the better schools. They need it for that “critical mass of diversity.” Part of the draw of getting into these schools (beyond the very fine restrooms some boast) is that admitees will have the privilege of rubbing elbows with the dumber-than-a-post, but extremely wealthy, children of successful alums. If everybody at Harvard had to be admitted on “merit,” innumerable chances to make those critical social connections would be lost. Even the NYT should be able to see why that wouldn’t be a good thing.

  8. delurking

    There is a colorable argument for legacy admissions, that is testable with data the admissions office already have. The problem is they likely could not publicly admit to the validity of this argument without raising an outcry. It goes as follows:

    The admissions process is by its nature imprecise. The evaluation of the kids for fitness for a particular university comes with a very large error bar. Legacy status is correlated with success at the university and in life after the university, and thus should be used as one of the metrics for admissions.

    I don’t know if this correlation exists or not, but if its predictive value of success is large enough, it can easily dramatically narrow the error bar on the evaluation of a student. Does anyone doubt that a competent admissions office at an elite university knows the strength of the correlation?

  9. Jake

    “which in turn helps fund financial aid programs for needy students and the construction of facilities that help the entire organization.”

    You certainly don’t need a degree from MIT in mathematics to know this little saw is complete horseshit. If the number of seats available for prospective students at America’s elite academic institutes was in any way related to the size of their endowments everyone in the country would be allowed to attend at no cost.

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