Should Legacy Admissions Be Consigned to History?
Last week, The Atlantic ran a story that called for an end to legacy admissions. Legacy admissions practices have, on many occasions, helped children of alumni to gain admission to selective colleges. This article mentioned that about three-quarters of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 universities give some preference in admissions to the relatives of alumni.
The article raise two legitimate points in favor of the elimination of legacy admissions:
- First-generation college applicants, among others, are placed at a disadvantage in the admissions process.
- Legacy admissions are considered to be “affirmative action for the wealthy.”
Legacy admissions made more sense in an earlier era—before World War II and the passage of the GI Bill—when selective colleges targeted students from selective private and parochial high schools, quite possibly the same high schools that their parents, and maybe their grandparents, attended. These students, mostly male, quite likely pursued the same curriculum as their parents, with accommodations for advances in history, science and technology such as calculators and computers. They were far more likely to attend college and finish college in an era when the majority of their peers, men and women, did not.
Admissions offices have recruited at these schools for decades, and they have maintained relationships with their leadership and college advisors. They still do, and they should. Their students are among the best prepared for college. But the graduates of the most selective high schools make up a much smaller percentage of the college-bound population in the United States than they did before World War II. Admissions processes have also become more open to a more diverse pool of candidates, especially women, since the later half of the 1960s.
Would the admissions process be fairer if legacy admissions were abolished?
In some ways, the answer is yes.
- Applicants would not be given “extra points” for their relative’s successes at earning a degree, even if the relative struggled in their studies.
- Applicants would not be given “extra points” for their relative’s past financial contributions to the college.
- Applicants might not be given “extra points” if they went to the same selective high school that their relatives attended.
But abolishing legacy admissions could also cause some unintended consequences that should be reported.
- The more selective private and parochial schools would lose a “competitive advantage” that they have held for decades as they recruit new students. This has to be mentioned since many of these schools, like colleges, have tried to recruit a more diverse student body through scholarships, “prep-for-prep” partnerships and post-graduate education opportunities, among other educational options.
- The more selective colleges would become even more selective. Whenever an admissions process becomes, or is perceived to be, fairer or less exclusionary, it attracts more diversity in the applicant pool. While admissions officers might become more sensitive to diversity in crafting a freshman class, they will also need to deny access to more applicants of all races, religions, orientations and family incomes. While legacy candidates might no longer have a preference, no particular group of non-legacies gains an advantage when all groups are considered equally.
- College admissions processes at many schools would also become more “need-aware” towards the qualified applicants who rank lower down in their prospective freshman class. This is another consequence when selective college admissions become more selective.
Consigning legacy admissions to history could make the admissions process more democratic for well-qualified applicants who have not had that extra “leg up” in the pool. But there are always new problems when one adds more democracy to any recruitment and selection process, including college admissions.
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