On June 29, in the landmark case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of SFFA — effectively outlawing race-based affirmative action in admissions at colleges receiving federal funding. This decision was nothing less than inexorable, yet conservative justices touted the Harvard decision as a watershed moment in the restoration of core American values in college admissions, eulogizing the supposed victory for egalitarianism and meritocracy. Nonetheless, the decision has ignited discussion about another, far older admissions practice, equally controversial yet hitherto untouched by the nation’s highest court: legacy admissions. The practice involves preferential treatment for the children of alumni in admissions — 65% of whom come from families in the top 5% income bracket — or in other words, affirmative action for the rich and powerful.
If colleges truly hope to create a more meritocratic admissions regime, especially after the recent Supreme Court ruling, the century-old practice of legacy admissions must end. Though intuitively, affirmative action might be regarded as a detriment to meritocracy due to its race-based standards for college admissions, it is rather an agent of equity. It would be fair to say race can be a crucial factor in determining one’s access to opportunities and resources. Thus, affirmative action reflects the holism held so highly by admissions offices, as it attempts to level the playing field. Legacy admissions, on the other hand, is merely an instrument of universities’ commercial endeavors. It does not serve to inject fairness into the admissions process; it only erodes it. Hence, the end of affirmative action makes a similar fate for legacy admissions all the more necessary.
The history of legacy admissions alone speaks to the discriminatory nature of the practice. Dartmouth happens to be the first institution to implement legacy admission. And it had a specific purpose — severely curbing the presence of ethnic and religious minorities like Jews and Catholics. The practice was soon adopted by Harvard and a large number of other elite colleges and universities, including the entire Ivy League. Today, it remains in effect at most prestigious institutions.
Of course, in this day and age, colleges and universities do not practice legacy admissions for quasi-eugenicist purposes as they did in the past. Though their current motives for upholding the practice are not nearly as repugnant, they are nonetheless detrimental to meritocracy and sustain socioeconomic discrimination in admissions. A primary justification for legacy admissions used by colleges is alumni gifts. They hope preferential treatment for the children of alumni will increase those alumni’s donations to the institution. However, legacy admissions is a rather fruitless venture in pursuit of this goal. It confers advantages upon the children of the many alumni who would not donate to the school regardless, but excludes the children of non-alumni wealthy families who would donate if their children were admitted. Hence, studies have shown that there is no significant correlation between legacy admissions and a greater likelihood of any particular alumnus donating more. In fact, from 1980 to 2010, the percentage of legacies in Yale’s student body decreased from 24% to 13%, but alumni donations rose.
However, even if legacy admissions did have a notable impact on alumni giving, the moral objections to the practice would outweigh its practical benefits, especially after the elimination of affirmative action. For example, legacy preferences are roughly equivalent to a 160-point boost on the SAT. Given that legacy applicants are overwhelmingly white and affluent, and already enjoy access to significantly better resources than historically marginalized groups, the inequity fueled by legacy admissions is heavily concerning. As a result, legacy applicants are admitted at far higher rates than their non-legacy counterparts — from 2014 to 2019, Harvard legacies enjoyed a 33.6% admit rate, more than 5 times higher than the general admission rate of 5.9%. For this reason, following the ruling against affirmative action, the Department of Education launched a civil rights probe into Harvard’s practice of legacy admissions. The investigation will seek to determine whether legacy preferences constitute race-based discrimination.
Yet, while Harvard is investigated, a number of other notable institutions are relinquishing legacy admissions for good. Wesleyan University, for example, officially dropped the practice just a few weeks after the Supreme Court ruling. It argued that legacy admissions were holding back efforts to diversify the student body and to include more veterans and rural students. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which had already abandoned legacy preferences long before the ruling, argued that, since selective admissions are inherently zero-sum, it is unfair for one student to take away the spot of another equal or better student who did not reap the generational benefits of having alumni relatives. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such a drastic advantage for an overwhelmingly white and affluent demographic, coupled with the recent Supreme Court decision, will make admissions ever more difficult for underrepresented minorities. It will further cripple hopes of establishing a more meritocratic and equitable admissions process promoting social mobility in the U.S.
It is a truism that many groups hope to see a more meritocratic admissions process come into fruition. Nonetheless, the recent Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action jeopardizes the realization of such a goal. If colleges and universities will no longer be able to consider race as a factor in an admission decision, leaving affluent, predominantly white students at an advantage, it is only fair if colleges move away from legacy admissions as well. A practice that overwhelmingly favors the wealthy has no place in an admissions process based on merit.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.