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.)