Verbum Ultimum: Big Green Favoritism

Legacy student admissions preferences undermine Dartmouth's values. ​


Dartmouth, like most higher education institutions in America, is a funnel that sifts through its applicant pool, systematically favoring those of a higher socioeconomic background. Before access to higher education was extended to more people regardless of race or gender, this funnel also greatly favored the sons of College graduates, who were often white and male. Though there is now more diversity and access to higher education nationwide, the practice of giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni still exits in the form of treatment extended to legacy students.

Of course, many children of alumni are well-qualified for admission to Dartmouth in their own right, irrespective of any support they receive during the application process. But Dartmouth should not consider an applicant’s legacy status as a factor in admissions and turn down other, better-qualified students simply because of it.

Dartmouth, like many peer institutions, clearly gives preference to legacy students. As former dean of admissions Maria Laskaris ’84 said in 2011, “Our legacy applicants are admitted at a rate that’s roughly two-and-a-half times greater than the overall rate of admission.” She added, “It’s never easy to turn away the children of Dartmouth alumni.”

And Laskaris’ words have been borne out time and again. Not only do legacies make up a significant portion of Dartmouth’s accepted students — roughly 8 percent for the Class of 2020 and 9 percent for the Class of 2021 — they make up an even larger proportion of actual enrollees. Fully 14 percent of enrolled students in the Class of 2020 are the children of alumni. (Data is not yet available for the Class of 2021.) Early decision acceptances favor legacies even more — 16 percent of the Class of 2021’s early decision intake were legacies. Since Dartmouth admitted 27.8 percent of applicants for that early decision class, it is possible to infer from Laskaris’ comments that almost 60 percent of legacy students who applied early decision were accepted.

The benefits accrued by legacy students applying to Dartmouth are higher than those seen at other institutions, but not by much. In 2008, 42 percent of early decision legacy applicants and 34 percent of regular decision legacy applicants to the University of Pennsylvania were accepted. In 2009, Princeton University admitted 42 percent of its legacy applicants, even as it admitted just 9 percent of non-legacies. Harvard accepted around 30 percent of legacy applicants in 2011, well over its mid-single digit overall acceptance rates. Harvard also maintains a special “Z-list,” a legacy-dominated tool that allows a select few officially waitlisted applicants to attend Harvard if they defer admission for an entire year.

According to a 2004 study by three Princeton scholars of 10 academically selective colleges, simply being the child of an alumnus adds the equivalent of 160 SAT points to your application — that is, a legacy applicant who scored a 1400 on the test would have the same admissions chances as a non-legacy student scoring a 1560. In the 2000-2001 academic year, 567 legacy students at Princeton were surveyed. Ten were Hispanic, four were black. In effect, legacy bonuses are a form of affirmative action that, rather than assisting those who are least likely to have had access to quality schools and private SAT tutors, benefits those most likely to have a resource advantage.

The American ideal is a meritocratic one, even if reality often differs from that goal. The U.S. Constitution reflects this: The Nobility Clause bans heredity titles being granted by the government while the Equal Protection Clause guarantees that all citizens must benefit from “the equal protection of the laws.” Those rules directly impact public colleges and universities. Though private institutions such as Dartmouth are largely exempted, they should still try to uphold the ideals they celebrate and benefit from.

Legacy admissions go against the best impulses of the American dream. They seek to benefit those who need it the least. Last year, the 1,542 billionaires in the world saw their wealth increase by a fifth to over $6 trillion, more than twice the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom. Wealth inequality, and the inherent educational benefits that come with it, is already significant enough for most legacy students without the added benefit of legacy favoritism.

Reforming admissions practices would hurt few students. Many legacies are already highly qualified and would likely be well-placed to gain admission to the College regardless of any bonuses accrued by their parentage. Letting go of the remainder — those students whose achievements, taken without the context of favorable parentage, would not earn them admission — will not be a great loss to the College.

While financial pressures on the College exist, prompting Dartmouth to admit children of alumni donors who give so generously to Dartmouth, should the College weaken its academic standards and, as a result, prestige? That seems too steep a price to pay for a few extra dollars, particularly with almost $5 billion in the College’s endowment at present. Perhaps meritocratic-minded individuals could be prompted to give more to a school that leads the way in abolishing hereditary privileges like legacy admissions preferences.

Dartmouth should do away with admissions preferences for legacy students. The benefits the College accrues from alumni donations in exchange for admission cannot ever be great enough to justify the practice.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.