The Real Reasons Legacy Preferences Exist

Several schools forgo or have abandoned them, but seem to be faring just fine.

Brooks Kraft / Getty

Applying to college as a legacy is like having a superpower. It has been estimated to double or quadruple one’s chances of getting into a highly selective school, and has been found to be roughly equivalent to a 160-point boost on the SAT. At the most selective institutions in the United States, it’s typical for 10 to 15 percent of students to have a parent who also attended.

These estimates are, of course, rough; colleges generally don’t share specifics on the advantage they give to legacies—or, sometimes, on how they define the term (it can refer to children of alumni or, more broadly, to other relatives of alumni)—so research on the subject has been limited.

Still, given that admissions at selective colleges are more competitive than ever—last week, several of them announced record-low acceptance rates—it’s clear that a preference for legacies benefits alumni and their children. But what does this tradition—which is exceedingly rare outside the United States—do for colleges? And, relatedly, what’s stopping them from getting rid of a policy that gives some applicants an automatic advantage solely because of their lineage?

The most important rationale that colleges cite is a financial one: They tend to believe that giving legacy applicants an edge helps them bring in alumni donations. For instance, at Harvard, a committee formed in 2017 tasked with assessing potential tweaks to the admissions process concluded that scrapping the school’s legacy preference might jeopardize the “generous financial support” that “is essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning” and that helps fund financial aid.

“Colleges have defended the legacy preference by saying it’s necessary for fundraising,” says Michael Dannenberg, the director of strategic initiatives for policy at the think tank Education Reform Now. But he observes that the legacy preference, as a fundraising tool, isn’t very precise. It is, he says, both “overbroad” (it includes applicants whose parents have never donated to a school) and “underinclusive” (it excludes tons of very wealthy applicants who don’t have an association with the school). “It would be more efficient and effective to auction acceptance letters on eBay,” he says.

Dannenberg points to a study that tracked alumni giving from 1998 to 2008 at the top 100 American universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The study found “no statistically significant evidence” that legacy preferences themselves make any given alum more likely to donate; instead, the study suggested, they simply allow schools to let in more children of wealthy alumni than they otherwise would. So since those wealthy alumni tend to donate more money, the legacy preference does appear to help colleges’ bottom line. But giving these students higher priority doesn’t seem financially vital: Seven schools tracked in the study did away with legacy preferences and didn’t see any large drop-off in donations, though such a drop-off could conceivably occur over a longer time span.

In that regard, Yale is an interesting case study. The school currently gives the children of alumni an admissions bump, but from 1980 to 2010, the proportion of students in its freshman class with a parent who also attended dropped from 24 percent to 13 percent. Yet during that same period, total alumni giving increased. (Yale didn’t provide me with comprehensive annual data about alumni giving from 1980 to 2010, nor would it comment on trends in total giving during that time.) One could argue that decreasing the percentage of enrolled legacies might in fact have prevented Yale from bringing in even more money than it did, but the point stands that the results were far from financially catastrophic. After adjusting for inflation, Yale’s endowment, which is funded in part by alumni donations, grew from just under $2 billion in 1980 to more than $16 billion in 2010, as expressed in 2010 dollars.

College fundraising, it turns out, is more of an art than a science. “I’m not convinced that anybody could prove to you that those people with legacy admissions donate solely [because of a] legacy admission,” says Mickey Munley, a higher-education consultant who previously worked at Grinnell College in fundraising and public relations.

Sometimes the families of legacy admits donate a bunch of money, he says, and sometimes they don’t. “Fundraisers know how critical relationship building is, and they grasp at anything that will help build, sustain, and grow a relationship,” Munley told me, “whether it has any true impact or not.”

Another explanation that colleges offer for the legacy preference is that it can function as an admissions tiebreaker. As a spokesperson for Brown University told The Atlantic last year, “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.”

Dannenberg doesn’t find this usage compelling either. “No two applicants are the same, and the ‘tie’ rarely exists,” he argues. “And regardless, if there were a tie, you’d want to break it in favor of the person who’s overcome more and had fewer advantages along the way.”

Brown’s concept of “natural affinity” connects to another common reason why colleges might keep legacy admissions: It strengthens a sense of community among graduates and current students.

On this front, the aforementioned Harvard committee concluded that the legacy preference is one way of encouraging alumni to “remain engaged with the College for the rest of their lives”—yes, by giving money, but also by giving their time and energy, for instance, in the form of interviewing Harvard applicants. (Harvard declined an interview request, but provided a statement expressing its commitment to letting in students who are “diverse on multiple dimensions,” including in their “academic interests, perspectives, and talents.”)

This notion of lifelong engagement is central to elite colleges’ business model and value proposition, according to Mitchell Stevens, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and the author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. He says that schools strive to build “clanlike” emotional connections with students and graduates, “partly so that they might solicit philanthropic contributions, but partly so that wherever in the world those people are, they give some special deference or recognition to others who hold that identity.”

Cultivating this collective identity is not just important for getting alumni to interview prospective students. It fundamentally enhances the value of holding a degree, in the sense that alums often go out of their way to help those with whom they share an alma mater, whether by giving career advice or sharing professional connections. “Legacy admissions,” Stevens says, “have been a central part of the way in which universities have promulgated that sense of identity and fealty.” (On a less palatable note, elite schools first implemented legacy preferences in the early 20th century in order to limit the admission of immigrants, particularly Jews.)

Then there are the forces keeping legacy preferences in place that schools themselves are less likely to publicly articulate. Stevens notes that any school that moves to abolish its policy would expect serious pushback from alumni, who wouldn’t take well to losing a valuable perk. “And remember,” he says, “the most loyal and more generous alumni of an organization are the very same ones that sit on their institutions’ boards of trustees.”

Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego who studies the culture of higher education, suggested other possibilities. For one thing, letting in legacies—who tend to be well connected—can grant other students access to elite networks, which is a central part of top-tier colleges’ appeal. (Perhaps this is what a Harvard dean was getting at when he said, in testimony during the trial over the university’s affirmative-action policy, that putting students who “have more experience with Harvard” alongside those “who are less familiar with Harvard” can lead to productive exchanges.)

A final reason that legacy preferences persist might be that many legacies don’t represent a major drop-off in academic quality—that their presence isn’t meaningfully damaging campuses’ academic climate. While some research indicates that legacy admits go on to earn lower average grades than their peers, plenty are strong applicants.

Munley, the former Grinnell official, told me that in his experience, the majority of legacy admits fare well enough. “Most parents who are alums of the school have a sense of the school and their own kids, and aren’t going to be too pushy if their kid is completely not qualified,” he said. (Most, he noted, but not all.) And a Harvard spokesperson told me that admitted legacies tend to have higher median test scores and grades than the rest of admitted students. This doesn’t make the admissions advantage that legacies are given defensible, but it’s possibly another reason that the status quo of legacy admissions persists.

That status quo might well benefit (or at least not hurt) colleges that give some preference to legacies—so it makes sense that they would be resistant to abandoning the practice. Their argument, though, is not very strong: Many of the world’s most hallowed universities, including MIT, the California Institute of Technology, Oxford, and Cambridge, say they don’t give alums’ children a leg up, and they seem to be doing just fine.