Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

How Elite Universities Use Legacy to Practice Affirmative Action for the Rich

I am a Boston College legacy. Both of my parents attended BC, where they added to the “70%” statistic we all hear so frequently. I grew up knowing the words to “For Boston,” and when the time came to apply to colleges, I knew that I would be applying here (and definitely not Notre Dame).

It is widely understood that being a legacy—an individual with a parent who attended the same school as they do—often makes a difference in admissions. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I discovered just how much of a difference it can have for those who fall into this category. At BC, over a seventh (about 15%) of the class of 2023 are legacy students. 

But how does this statistic compare to other universities? 

Unsurprisingly, about three-quarters of the top 100 universities in the nation take lineage into account during the admissions process. Most of these universities accept drastically more legacy students, especially when juxtaposed with their general admission rates. Princeton, for instance, accepts nearly a third of legacy applicants. Compare that to their 5.5% overall acceptance rate, and the problem becomes much more clear (most other Ivies have similar statistics).

The difference in legacy admissions goes beyond a higher rate of acceptance, however. A Princeton researcher found that on average, “legacy status provided a boost to a prospective student’s application equivalent to a 160-point increase in SAT scores.” At BC, this boost isn’t simply a concept found through research, however. According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the average SAT score of all admitted students in the class of 2023 was 1461; the average SAT score of admitted legacy students in the same class was 1432—nearly a 30-point difference.

As one might imagine, legacy preference has serious implications for elite universities; most notably, it disproportionately affects lower-income students. Among top universities, alumni generally earn higher wages than graduates of other schools throughout their careers. BC alumni, on average, have annual mid-career salaries of roughly $115,000. In the United States, the average annual mid-career salary for a college graduate is just above $80,000

Therefore, children of alumni from other schools as well as first-generation students, have a disadvantage when applying to top colleges. Not only are they less likely to be admitted than legacy students, but they may struggle more to pay tuition than legacies, who tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. 

Legacy admissions also pose challenges for minority students. Similar to how graduates of elite universities tend to make more money than graduates of other schools, these graduates are also overwhelmingly white. Policies that benefit children of these alumni help perpetuate a lack of diversity at predominantly white, elite colleges.

Knowing these statistics, why would schools continue to practice legacy preference in their admissions? Most universities provide answers that are often seen as unsatisfactory. A typical defense is that legacy students help keep up tradition, so admitting these students gives respect to the commitment of the parents who came before. 

A less typical (read: deplorable) answer comes from the dean of Harvard University, Rakesh Khurana. In a deposition, Khurana explains that the practice can create a different type of diversity at Harvard by placing students who “have more experience at Harvard” in contact with “others who are less familiar with Harvard,” thereby allowing them to “exchange perspectives, points of view” and become “more effective citizens and citizen leaders for society.” The research to support this claim? Nowhere to be found.

Although it is not often publicized, another underlying motivation for many universities is financial—schools often expect to receive greater contributions from legacy students than non-legacies. This motivation, however, is based off an incorrect assumption. A major study found “no evidence that legacy-preference policies themselves exert an influence on giving behavior,” dispelling the myth that admitting a higher percentage of legacies correlates with higher donation amounts. 

BC Director of Undergraduate Admissions Grant Gosselin corroborates this study, noting that financial motivations do not factor into BC’s decisions in any way. Gosselin asserts that the university practices need-blind admissions policies when deciding who to admit; more importantly, he explains that the university’s likelihood of receiving donations is based less on an alum’s legacy status and more on their experience as a student.

If not for financial reasons, how does BC defend the fact that a large percent of their undergraduate student body is legacy students? Gosselin explains that “Boston College alumni are some of the most satisfied and energetic alumni in the nation and their enthusiasm for BC is often shared by their children. This enthusiasm and commitment to Boston College's mission, coupled with [their] strong academic performance, makes for very compelling candidates in our decision-making process.”

On the surface, this answer makes sense—it is only natural that BC should accept students who excel academically and are supposedly more committed to the university’s mission (although this is difficult to measure). But it also raises another question: Why give additional preference to students who already come from privileged backgrounds, as children of graduates of elite schools tend to do, simply by merit of their purported enthusiasm about their school?

Colleges across the nation are always going to incorporate legacy status into their admissions decisions—this is a depressing result of their location in a country that has institutionalized racism and classism into nearly all facets of society. Just because other schools practice this policy, however, doesn’t mean our university has to uphold it. Be better, BC.

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