Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Legacy policies vary across nation

As the higher education community waits anxiously for the upcoming decisions in the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases which will determine the future use of race as a factor in admissions decisions, the bonuses given to another group of applicants have slipped under the radar.

At most colleges and universities across the country, sons and daughters of graduates are given special consideration as "legacy" applicants. Though the weight given to these legacies varies by institution, nearly every selective school in the country takes legacy standing into account in some form or another.

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

In recent years, as it has become even more difficult to receive admission at the upper echelon schools throughout the country, legacy admissions have been under increasing fire as an unfair practice. Opponents of the legacy bonus utilize similar arguments to those against affirmative action, claiming that by giving a bonus to certain students based on factors such as race or parents' colleges it creates an unfair environment for the evaluation of students as individuals. However, the two opposition groups do not always find themselves in the same camp.

Legacy also receives fire from those who claim that it is simply a financial ploy to guarantee the continued donations of wealthy alumni. Those opponents claim that legacy is the result of college education being treated as a large-scale business by many institutions, instead of as an educational environment.

But despite the sporadic criticism that has emerged in recent years, legacy has avoided the kind of national attention given to race as a factor in college admissions.

One possible explanation is that legacy status is rewarded with a relatively small bonus at most colleges across the country. This is evident in the policies of the University of Michigan which are currently under scrutiny by the Supreme Court for their treatment of race. In the University's points-based admissions system, legacies receive a bonus four points while members of minority groups -- African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans -- receive 20 points.

However, while the country and the higher education community itself, to an extent, remains divided on the use race as a factor in admissions, the supporters of legacy appear to be far more limited.

"Of course our alumni want us to give more weight to legacies when their kids are applying," Furstenberg said, "while everyone else thinks it should receive less weight."

But no one, aside perhaps from those responsible for handling the unwieldy budgets at colleges and universities, has expressed any strong ideology in support of the legacy benefit, in contrast to the vigorous defense of the University of Michigan's system of racial preferences.

Definition of a Legacy

While the use of legacy remains uniform throughout institutions across the country, the exact impact it has in the admissions process differs greatly from school to school. Even the definition of a legacy applicant varies by the 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, an ex-admissions officer at Duke University, and author of the book "Admissions Confidential."

At Dartmouth a legacy is considered "a son or daughter of anyone with a B.A. from Dartmouth College," said Furstenberg, who explained that no other relation to Dartmouth, including having parental graduates of the graduate schools, makes a student eligible for legacy.

At Harvard, the legacy status falls upon similar restrictions, according to Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis, who described legacy as "a form of special look at the sons and daughters of Harvard and Radcliffe College alumni."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, 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, said Associate Director of Admissions Bette Johnson.

How Legacies are Treated

Just as the definition of a legacy differs from institution to institution, the process of legacy admissions, and the amount of extra weight actually given to legacies differs greatly.

"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 about his observations after profiling classes of high-school seniors through the admissions process. "However, I found that in fact evidence shows that it is 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 their admissions procedures, financial concerns cannot be taken into consideration through the admissions process. More importantly, Furstenberg acknowledged that at Dartmouth "legacy candidates do get an extra look." He disputed the use of the word tiebreaker in describing the perks of a legacy applicant, saying that their status is considered throughout the process, but merely as a small "plus-factor." However, the standards remain "very rigorous even with the plus-factor," Furstenberg said.

"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."

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

But according to Toor, that is not the case at Duke when the university considers the admissions of legacies. She described a process where the admissions department went about its business like at every other school, assessing the applicant based on their individual merits, and without taking into account their legacy status. However, once the admissions department had finalized its decisions, the pool of legacy applicants who had been denied admission was handed over to the alumni and development office for further review, Toor said.

In what was initially a closed decision-making process that did not allow access to any admissions officers, the alumni and development staff reviewed the legacy applications that had been rejected, with the ability to "bring them back like a phoenix from the ashes," Toor said.

Eventually, admissions officers were allowed to observe the process, but without any say while decision were made on the behalf on "institutional interests," frequently to their chagrin, she said. However, there is a caveat to the legacy title that Toor infers is similar at most other schools.

"What counts is if you've had a sustained history of giving," she said. "You only count as an alum if you have been active in the alumni association or consistently giving money or working as an alumni interviewer, et cetera. Your child gets no legacy consideration just because you hold a Duke degree."

While private schools provide an extra level of consideration, many public schools have decided to treat legacy applicants differently, in part because of the less individual review process.

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. Virginia 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.

"As the admissions process to UC became more competitive, considering nonresident alumni students within the resident pool started to give them a disproportionate advantage over other nonresident students," said UC spokesperson Hanan Eisenman. "This was not the intent of the procedure and the practice was halted in Fall 2000. The portion of the application that asked whether a student had an alumni parent was also removed."

The decision coincided with a state-wide move to remove race as a consideration for admission as well, and left the UC schools in a very small minority across the country as schools with no consideration of legacy in their admissions process.

Answering Accusations

Though admissions offices at the country's elite schools would like to downplay the effect legacy consideration has on its admissions decisions and subsequent enrollment, the continuation of what some might call a vestige of the "old boy network" begs questions, as the admissions process is hard enough for the average student without having to compete against those with feathers and plus-factors on their side.

While 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.

"We are mindful that we do a lot of things that are very expensive," said Harvard's Lewis. "Our need-blind admissions policy for instance. And we can't do that unless people feel like they are a member of the family. We do have great needs, and giving is crucial to our success; we don't want to jeopardize that."

Furstenberg was less direct on the connection between money and legacy, saying 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 is 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.

The End of Legacy

The end of legacy does not appear do be within sight. As college alumni bases increase, demand will undoubtedly rise from within alumni ranks for preference for their children. Need-blind admissions is spreading, with the result being a need for larger sums of money annually just to pay for the students on financial aid, contributing to a further need for alumni donations and contributions.

However, it does appear that the impact of legacy standing 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 this year with only 112 accepted, continuing a four-year trend producing progressively fewer legacy applicants each consecutive year.