For legacies, age-old perks in admissions are still in swing

by Zachary Goldstein | 5/10/04 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles examining higher education admissions in the wake of last year's University of Michigan Supreme Court decisions. This article looks at legacy preference.

Some say it's for the money, others because of tradition. Regardless of the explanation, legacy applicants at colleges and universities throughout the nation continue to enjoy the preference they have received for decades.

At many schools, sons and daughters of graduates are given special consideration in the applications process. Though the weight given to these legacies varies by institution, nearly every selective school takes legacy standing into account in some form or another.

"I consider it simply a small 'plus-factor' in the admissions decisions," said Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg.

But this small plus-factor appears to make a significant difference. While Dartmouth's 18.3 percent overall acceptance rate this year was one of the lowest in the nation, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants was nearly twice that level. Of the 364 legacy students who applied for admission to the Class of 2008, 35.4 percent were accepted.

In recent years, as admission to upper-echelon schools has become even more difficult, legacy admissions have been under increasing fire as an unfair practice.

Schools across the country argued vehemently for the continued use of race as a factor in admissions in last year's Supreme Court cases, arguing that having a diverse student population carries with it an educational benefit. But does accepting legacies have a similar educational benefit for the community?

"I guess I would say that it benefits the institution," Furstenberg said. "Of course our alumni want us to give more weight to legacies when their kids are applying, while everyone else thinks it should receive less weight."

Legacies receive some kind of advantage at most schools, but exactly how the admissions process treats them varies widely by school.

"At the younger or smaller schools whose endowment is much smaller they have to dip a little lower because they need to keep alumni happy to keep giving," said Rachel Toor, the author of the book "Admissions Confidential" and a former admissions officer at Duke University.

Even the definition of a legacy applicant varies by the school. In Hanover, a legacy is considered "a son or daughter of anyone with a B.A. from Dartmouth College," said Furstenberg. No other relation to Dartmouth makes a student eligible for legacy. Likewise, there is not an extra benefit to having had both parents graduate from Dartmouth -- sometimes called a double-legacy -- or being a multi-generational legacy.

Harvard defines legacies similarly, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confers legacy status on anyone whose parents or grandparents graduated from MIT, and even for those whose siblings attended or are attending the school, though sibling legacy carries less weight, Associate Director of Admissions Bette Johnson said.

Similarly, schools vary in the amount of extra weight actually given to legacies.

"If you ask schools directly, they will generally just say that legacy counts as a tiebreaker, said Dan Golden, a Boston-based Wall Street Journal education reporter who has written in-depth analyses profiling classes of high-school seniors through the admissions process. He contends that it is, in fact, a significant advantage at almost every school, and greater if the alumnus has been active as a volunteer or donor and if the student will not require financial aid.

Golden's observations do not apply to Dartmouth, however, said Furstenberg. Firstly, because Dartmouth is need-blind in its admissions procedures, financial concerns cannot be taken into consideration through the admissions process. Furstenberg, eschewing the use of the word "tiebreaker," described the advantage legacies get as a small "plus-factor."

And while legacies do get a second look, Furstenberg said, they are assessed with the same standards.

"The acceptance statistics may be higher by percentage, but the rigor of evaluation is the same," Furstenberg said. "The vast majority would have been admitted anyway."

Michele Hernandez '89, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, author of the book "A is for Admission" and currently a private college consultant, described Furstenberg's "plus-factor" as "more of an in-depth look."

"Instead of looking for flaws in the application we looked for redeeming features," Hernandez said of her time spent in the admissions office in the mid-'90s. "We were looking for a reason to accept the legacy instead of a reason to deny."

At Harvard, however, legacy does amount to a tiebreaker, counting as a "feather on the scale if all else is equal," Harvard admissions director Marilyn McGrath Lewis said. By treating legacy as no more than a tiebreaker, Harvard is able to acknowledge legacy applicants "without giving away quality."

But according to Toor, that is not the case at Duke. There, the school's alumni and development staff review rejected legacy applications, possessing an ability to "bring them back like a phoenix from the ashes," Toor said.

While private schools provide an extra level of consideration, many public schools have decided to treat legacy applicants differently.

The University of Virginia provides no special consideration for legacies in the way that most private schools do, but many would argue its perks are actually a greater benefit to legacy applicants. UVA will consider any legacy applicant who applies from out of state as an in-state applicant, putting them in an entirely different applicant pool for review -- one that traditionally has a substantially higher admittance rate.

The University of California system used a similar system until 2000 when it chose to move toward giving no advantage to legacy applicants, UC spokesperson Hanan Eisenman said.

However, legacies whose families had made regular donations to the school had a major advantage at Duke, according to Toor.

"What counts is if you've had a sustained history of giving," she said. "Your child gets no legacy consideration just because you hold a Duke degree."

This is "absolutely not true at Dartmouth," Furstenberg said. There are legacies, and then there are "development cases," and the two are separate. Legacies receive that designation automatically from the admissions office if their parent holds a Dartmouth degree. Development cases, on the other hand, proceed differently.

When an important development case -- usually involving a big donor -- shows up, the alumni relations and development office inform the admissions office of an application that should receive special attention.

But Furstenberg said such cases are few and far between.

"There are typically 10 or fewer development cases each year. There is a fairly high standard to be treated as a development case. I mean you really have to donate a building or something. Schools with big endowments don't really give much advantage because they have so much money."

Admissions offices at the country's elite schools would like to downplay the effect legacy consideration has on its admissions decisions and subsequent enrollment. Although Toor established a definitive connection between Duke's legacy admissions and the protection of its endowment, other admissions officers admitted a similar motivation for their own preferential treatment of legacies, but stopped short of acknowledging a direct relationship.

When asked about the link between money and legacies, Furstenberg said only that "alumni support is very important to this College." He responded directly to concerns that legacy is counterproductive to the diversity of the class.

"We are now seeing more legacies who are sons and daughters of graduates of color, resulting in more and more legacy minorities," Furstenberg said, citing a 15- to 20-year gap between the early efforts to diversify the campus and the result of minority legacy applicants applying.

But Toor was much more frank in her analysis.

"It comes down to who they are afraid of pissing off," she said.

Golden seemed to agree.

"They talk about tradition, but when push comes to shove it's a business decision," he said.

Indeed, the end of legacy is not near, but it does appear that its impact on an applicant's chances for admission may soon decrease. Furstenberg acknowledged that "the legacy pool has gotten smaller overall" and that now the "vast majority" of the legacies admitted this year would have been admitted anyway. Legacy admits reached a five-year low last year with only 112 accepted.

This year, the number was slightly higher -- around 130 accepted legacies -- but still the second lowest number since the '90s.

Dartmouth's numbers are actually quite low by comparison. While only six percent of overall acceptances for the Class of 2008 were legacies, Princeton's accepted pool was 11.2 percent legacy -- over 180 students. Similarly, Brown accepted nearly 170 legacies.

One thing that isn't falling is the number of legacy applicants to elite schools. This year, Dartmouth received 364 legacy applications, the highest number in at least five years, and up 20 percent from just four years ago.

Other schools are seeing similar trends. At the University of Pennsylvania, legacy applicants number in the quadruple digits this year.

"It's a part of the institutional culture, here and at other Ivies," Furstenberg said.