College Admissions Are Still Unfair

But when fancy schools like Amherst kill legacy preferences, they do get a little fairer.

A black and white photo of the campus of Amherst College.
Ilana Panich-Linsman / The New York Times / Redux

About the author: James S. Murphy is a senior policy analyst at Education Reform Now, where he works on higher-education policy.

This week Amherst College announced that it was ending the use of legacy preferences in its admissions process. Its president, Biddy Martin, acknowledged that providing an advantage to applicants who are the children of alumni “inadvertently limits educational opportunity.” When incredibly wealthy, highly selective colleges such as Amherst (endowment: $3.7 billion; admission rate: 8 percent) make an announcement like this, it’s tempting to pour a bucket of cold water on the self-congratulatory fireworks they’re lighting for themselves. That should not happen this time.

Still, the temptation is real. Why congratulate a college for doing something it should have done a long time ago? Many large public universities, including the University of California, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M, dropped legacy preferences years ago, as did Johns Hopkins University two years ago and MIT and CalTech before it. Pomona College, a highly ranked liberal-arts college like Amherst, dropped legacy preference in 2017. What’s more, even at those places that give the offspring of alumni an edge, or what admissions offices call a “tip,” legacies usually account for a small share of the enrolled class, and many of those admits would likely have gotten in without the advantage, or so the admissions deans defending the practice of birthright advantage like to say.

Wouldn’t it be better to go after all those jocks on campus? Division III sports have been called “affirmative action for rich white students,” and almost a third of Amherst’s roughly 1,800 students play one of the college’s 27 varsity sports. That is nearly three times as many athletes as legacies. Amherst plays in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, of which 77 percent of athletes are white, while the college’s student body is only 43 percent white, which makes you wonder whether Amherst’s obsession with sports is also “inadvertently limit[ing] educational opportunity,” maybe even more so than legacy preferences were.

Within a few hours of Amherst sharing its news, Catharine B. Hill, the managing director of the nonprofit consulting and research firm Ithaka S+R, dumped out her bucket. In a piece entitled “Ending Legacy Admissions Won’t End Inequity,” Hill stated bluntly, “Legacy admissions are bad from a public-relations perspective, but ending them would do almost nothing to improve socioeconomic diversity at these institutions or increase lower-income students’ likelihood of being admitted.” Splash! So much for your fireworks, Amherst.

It’s important to say that Hill is not some internet troll or the kind of economist who thinks the market should decide who gets to go to college or drink clean water. She is the former president of Vassar College and a serious champion of college access. Under her leadership, Vassar reinstated its “need-blind” admissions policy and significantly raised its enrollment rate of students with Pell Grants. Hill’s absolutely accurate point is that increased institutional spending on grant aid—not loans—for students with economic need will do much more to increase the enrollment of working-class and low-income students at wealthy colleges than getting rid of legacy admissions will.

The problem with Hill’s argument is that Amherst did precisely what Hill recommended: It increased its financial-aid investment to make an education there more affordable. Her critique poses a false choice. Amherst showed that it’s possible to do two good things at the same time. There’s no need to decide between getting rid of the legacy tip and increasing need-based financial aid. Furthermore, no one who is fighting for legacy admissions thinks it will “end inequity,” as Hill claims. Straw men should be kept away from the fireworks.

Perhaps worst of all, arguing that legacy has no impact only gives further cover to the institutions that still think some children should inherit a leg up in the admissions process. This is also not true. Almost 400 University of Notre Dame freshmen, or 19 percent of the class, were legacies this year. At the University of Southern California, more than 500 freshmen legacies were enrolled last fall. Would they have gotten those spots without a legacy tip? Perhaps, but at Johns Hopkins, which is just as selective, the percentage of enrolled legacies declined from 12.5 to 3.5 percent, while Pell enrollment climbed from 9 to 19 percent.

There is also an important component of racial justice in dropping legacy preferences. The practice overwhelmingly benefits white applicants and harms first-generation, immigrant, low-income, and nonwhite students. A 2018 lawsuit against Harvard revealed that 77 percent of legacy admits were white, while just 5 percent were Black and 7 percent were Hispanic. At Notre Dame, the class of 2024 had five times as many legacies as Black students. The college-access advocate Akil Bello told me that “eliminating legacy preference at what I like to call highly rejective colleges matters because it ends the perpetuation of the generational head start and advantages that white people in this country have.” Colleges want to hold on to their institutional legacy, but discrimination is part of that legacy. And, looking at the legacy-enrollment rates of several highly ranked colleges versus their Black-enrollment rates in the chart below, the failure to serve all students remains a part of their present.

A chart comparing legacy and Black enrollment at nine top-ranked colleges and universities.
***Share includes legacies and donors, from data released according to CA legal requirements ****Data are from trial documents and include Classes of 2015 to 2019

The fundamental reason to get rid of legacy preferences is that they are unethical; this led a group of young, first-generation students to create the “Leave Your Legacy” campaign, which helps alumni contact their alma mater to say they will not donate any money until the legacy preference is eliminated. This kind of pressure and the attention Amherst is rightly getting for dropping the tip for legacies could help persuade more colleges to give up an ugly and unfair practice.

Eliminating legacy preferences is not the end of the fight for fairness in college admissions; it’s the beginning. Elite colleges and universities have a long way to go in making a meaningful commitment to diversity, but Amherst took one step closer to it this week. And for that, I’m happy to light a sparkler.