If students vote to eliminate legacy preferences on their given campus, the groups plan to build alliances with alumni who oppose legacy preferences on principle. (Students at the other seven institutions involved—Duke, Swarthmore, Emory, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and Amherst—plan to pursue referenda later or use other means to draw attention to this issue, such as op-eds.)
At the very least, student organizers say, they want colleges to be transparent about their policies and disclose any written documents outlining how legacy preference is weighed in the admissions process. While universities typically disclose whether they use legacy preferences or not, they tend not to publicize details on how the process actually works—how heavily such preferences are weighted, for example, and how many students benefit each year.
Many college officials defend legacy preferences as a mere tiebreaker among otherwise equally qualified applicants. Brian Clark, who oversees communications at Brown, said in an email: “When it comes to choosing among equally strong candidates, one consideration can be the natural affinity for the University that often emerges among children of alumni from Brown’s undergraduate college. Such a relationship may be one consideration among a great many factors.”
Because Brown does not disclose relevant data, it’s hard to know precisely how big a factor legacy preference is in the Ivy League institution’s admissions decisions. But evidence suggests that legacy is a significant factor at many elite schools. Research from the Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade of 10 highly selective colleges suggests being a legacy provides a boost equivalent to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600 points). And in 2011, research on 30 elite schools from the higher-education expert Michael Hurwitz found that the children of alumni saw a 45 percentage-point increase in their chances of admission compared to otherwise equally qualified candidates who were not legacies, controlling for factors such as SAT scores, athlete status, gender, race, and “many less-quantifiable characteristics.”
At many prestigious colleges, the relatives of alumni abound on campus. A recent Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2021 found that 29 percent of students had a relative who attended Harvard. This proportion far outnumbered those whose parents lacked a four-year college degree.
Supporters of the new campaign against legacy preferences say they are getting pushback from those who contend that scholarship students should be grateful for the grants they are receiving and not challenge a system that allegedly encourages donations among alumni—donations that make those scholarships possible.
But Viet Nguyen, a 2017 graduate of Brown University and a leading force behind the anti-legacy preference drive, told me that “we aren’t biting the hand that feeds us.” There is very little evidence that legacy preferences increase donations, he said. Indeed, a 2010 study in a volume I edited called Affirmative Action for the Rich found that the existence of a legacy-preference policy did not meaningfully increase total alumni giving at leading universities. Furthermore, the study found that seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences between 1998 and 2007 did not suffer any serious reductions in alumni giving.