Yuan: Even the Scales

by Ziqin Yuan | 9/29/14 4:44pm

How much does a legacy weigh? Colleges generally say that legacy status is used only as a tiebreaker between two equally strong applicants. But in a 2011 interview with Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, dean of admissions and financial aid Maria Laskaris said that Dartmouth admits legacies nearly two-and-a-half times more frequently than non-legacy admits. It’s time for Dartmouth to tip the scales the other way.

Many legacy students deserve to come to Dartmouth. Many unaccepted students, however, are equally qualified to be here — and they do not possess the benefits of their parents’ Dartmouth connections. Because of their inherent advantages in getting through admissions, Dartmouth should judge legacies more harshly than non-legacy students.

The biggest benefit that legacy students have is their parents’ knowledge of Dartmouth. Their parents, as alumni, know exactly what kind of student the College values and can use that information to boost their child’s application. Legacies have greater access to a wide range of alumni (college friends are for life, right?). And since their parents spent four years as Dartmouth students — and many more as part of its famed alumni network — they have in-depth knowledge of Dartmouth and the type of image it hopes to project. In short, legacies have the tools to polish their applications until they appear to be the ideal Dartmouth student.

Furthermore, legacies are born with an advantage over most other applicants both economically and academically. Legacies come from a background that supports education, which is inherently an advantage in admissions. But is that an accurate testament to a student’s personal work ethic? After all, just having parents that went to college is enough to give legacies an advantage over many other applicants — especially compared to low-income students whose parents may not have college educations. If a parent has a bachelor’s degree, a child’s average SAT score is 1,576 on the 2,400-point scale. When the highest level of parental education is a high school diploma, that score drops to 1,394. SAT scores are one of the big indicators used by Dartmouth and other colleges to admit students, so the difference of scores based on the background of one’s parents is troubling. Though these scores are lower than the average Dartmouth student’s score of 2,100 or more, the trend can be extrapolated to higher performing students as well.

Education levels link to financial security, so it makes sense that legacies also tend to come from middle- or high-income families. Payscale reported in 2014 that the median early career salary of Dartmouth graduates is $55,500 and the mid-career median salary is $104,700. There is a direct correlation between a family’s financial status and an applicant’s SAT scores. In a family with a total income between $160,000 and $200,000, the average SAT score is 1,625. However, in a family with a total income between $80,000 and $100,000, the average SAT score is only 1,535. Students with wealthier and better-educated parents are more likely to do better on standardized tests, which are crucial for gaining admission to Dartmouth. Legacies thus have the dual benefits of being from statistically higher-performing socioeconomic backgrounds and the advantages that come from having alumni parents.

Do these advantages mean legacies don’t work as hard as other students? Not necessarily. The majority (if not all) of matriculated legacies completely deserve to be here. But many other applicants deserve acceptance to Dartmouth just as much — and some may deserve it even more. And unlike legacies, many of them don’t have the inherent advantages that come with well-off, well-educated parents. Without access to the alumni network and potential financial leverage, non-legacies (and especially low-income students) have more hurdles to jump in their Dartmouth application.

This is not an equal playing field. If Dartmouth wants to be open to intelligent students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, it must start by acknowledging the unfair advantages of being a legacy and begin evaluating individuals accordingly.

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