Commentary: The Hypocrisy of Legacy Admissions

Due to the recent lawsuit against Harvard University for discrimination against Asian-American applicants, a somewhat different aspect of college admissions has emerged to the forefront of public scrutiny: legacy admissions. Top universities in the country are systematically discriminating against the rest of America by giving children of alumni a significant advantage in admissions. For a country that prides itself on its progressiveness, liberalism, and equality for all, legacy admissions are a hypocritical blemish that must be changed.

Materials released in the Harvard lawsuit have suggested that over a six-year period, 33.6 percent of legacy applicants were admitted while only 5.9 percent of non-legacy applicants were admitted. A 2004 Princeton study also estimated that legacy status at top schools was equivalent to having an additional 160 points on the new 1600-point SAT. Additionally, around seven years ago, a Harvard graduate student named Michael Hurwitz calculated that having an alumni parent (which he refers to as a primary legacy) increased the chances of admission by around 30 percent at a top-20 university.

In a time of intense political polarization between conservatives and liberals, academic institutions need to take on the responsibility of starting conversations that increase empathy and understanding. A big part of the effectiveness of such conversations is the diversity of the participants; therefore, schools need to be diverse. Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and even our very own Andover pride themselves on their commitment to egalitarianism and diversity. I, along with many others, reap the rewards of the hard work of admissions teams across the country to create an opportunistic student body. These same institutions, however, use one of the most rigged admissions systems in American history and, thus, take opportunities away from the people who most need it.

Overseas, “most people from Britain are genuinely shocked to find that elite U.S. universities reserve places for the children of the rich and well connected. It is probably the single fact about U.S. higher education that they find most disturbing,” according to an article published in The Chronicle. Isn’t it ironic that while in Europe and most of the rest of the world, legacy admissions are nowhere to be found, in progressive America, they have become a part of the cycle that everyone takes for granted? Many top universities in the nation, including Harvard, argue that legacy admissions help build a multi-generational network of alumni. This argument is certainly legitimate. Alumni networks can be made stronger by accepting whole generations of families, and that is how American society has operated for almost all of its history. Additionally, “the acceptance of students who are close relatives of previous attendees is where top schools make their money. These schools should take in more legacies, provided they put the extra money to good use,” according to a Bloomberg article. Alumni networks, argues Harvard, provide vital income that the school uses to support its financial aid students. However, there needs to be significant change so that the admissions process can become more balanced and fair. It is troubling to see spots at the most prestigious schools in the country reserved for students already steeped in privilege. This structure of hereditary privilege must be drastically altered to play a much smaller role in the overall admissions process.

Legacy preference should not and cannot remain such a determining factor in the admissions process. When legacy students gain such an advantage, what happens to the other applicants? Are they barred from reaching top schools and accessing their resources simply due to uncontrollable privileges that are given to legacy students?

Top universities must reconsider the way in which they choose many of the world’s future leaders. Legacy preference takes opportunities away from those with less and turns them over to those who have more. It’s almost the polar opposite of affirmative action and completely goes against the ideology of equal opportunity these same schools preach. Legacy admissions don’t have to be completely eradicated, but when there is a 30 percent increase in the admissions rate of legacy applicants, something is clearly amiss. They must either be significantly downgraded in importance, to the point where they only improve an applicant’s chances by the single digit as a way of saluting their heritage, or they must be abandoned altogether. It’s time for America’s highest institutions to truly place progressiveness and liberalism into their college admissions.

Jonathan Fu is a two-year Lower from Short Hills, N.J. Contact the author at