Every year, many American high school seniors apply for admission to colleges and universities. At many of these schools, a candidate is more likely to get in if they have a close relative who also attended the school. These students are called “legacies.” Legacy admissions are very common at elite institutions, such as Ivy League schools. Being a legacy does not guarantee admission into a school. However, legacy admission rates are higher than those of other students. For instance, almost a third of Harvard’s class of 2021 were legacy admits.

At elite universities, many qualified students do not get in. There are simply not enough spots at each school for every great candidate who applies. While legacy students are typically qualified to get into the university, their legacy status simply gives them an edge amongst the other qualified candidates.

Universities say that legacy admissions improve yield rates. This is because admitted legacies will already have connections to the school. Therefore, they are more likely to enroll. Universities also depend on alumni loyalty for donations which help sustain the school. Most of a university’s money comes from its endowment – financial investments made up of donations, most often given by alumni. Without alumni donations, a university could not survive. Legacy admissions help maintain alumni loyalty and keep donations coming. Through this lens, though, some might view legacy admissions as a form of bribery.

Critics of legacy admissions say that the practice prefers traditionally privileged students over equally qualified, less privileged students. They also say it undermines a merit-based system of admissions. This is because legacy-based admissions inherently take more than one’s academic record into account. Legacy admissions can also reinforce a cycle of inequality. The practice allows students already privileged enough to have a parent with an Ivy League education access to inherit that same privilege.


–Discussion Questions–

Who benefits from the continued practice of legacy admissions?

Students from wealthy families will continue to benefit in other ways: they are able to make use of tutors, ACT/SAT prep courses, and many other forms of support that other students simply cannot afford. Are legacy admissions really worse? Would admissions really be so fair if they were removed?

How should we go about determining which students demonstrate the most merit and thus deserve to attend elite schools? What factors are most important?