The Damaging Impact of College Legacy on American Society

Legacies should not play as big of a role in college admissions as they do now.


Joanna Zhao

Although Cassandra Ng ’20 agrees that legacy should have less of an impact on college admissions, she does not think that legacy students are entirely undeserving of their admission. “Being a legacy student is not inherently bad, just as being privileged does not automatically make you a bad person,” Ng said.

As students familiarize themselves with the process of applying to colleges, they inevitably stumble upon the powerful concept of student legacies. A legacy is a student who has family ties to an alumni of a university or college. The legacy student’s relations mainly involve his or her mother and/or father attending the school. However, some universities will include looser sources of legacy, otherwise known as secondary: his or her relation to aunts, uncles, grandparents, and sometimes siblings.

In the college admissions process, legacy students are generally more likely to be admitted than non-legacy students. One study that examined admissions to elite colleges in 1997 estimated that legacy status created a boost for applicants similar to an added 160 points on the SAT. Another study, which looked at admissions to 30 highly selective institutions, concluded that legacy applicants were more than three times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy applicants. 

Family wealth generally has largely benefited applicants in admissions considerations; provided access to preparatory schools; paid for tutors and extracurricular activities; paid for large donations; and funded tuition. Family money can evidently be used to cheat on standardized tests and bribe athletic recruiters, too. For more information, search up the “2019 College Admissions Bribery Scandal.”

Because legacy students at these schools are more likely to be wealthy and white, the very existence of a legacy preference is both racist and even discriminatory in an economic sense for some. The preferential treatment towards legacy students is unfair to other, non-legacy applicants, and the impact should be lessened, or maybe even be eliminated. 

In the first colleges that were founded, wealthy white students weren’t just privileged in admissions; they were the only ones considered. Up until the end of the 19th century, colleges generally had private high school graduates who performed well in entrance exams and met criteria to be admitted to the college. These entrance exams were initially created by admissions officers because they thought minorities and people of different beliefs did not have the educational background to pass them in the first place. However, immigrants (especially the children of Jewish immigrant families), Catholics, and people from relatively poor socioeconomic backgrounds began performing well on the new admissions tests and were receiving more undergraduate seats at top universities, while admissions for wealthy white Anglo-Americans decreased significantly. In response, several Ivy League institutions began their practice of legacy admissions, which reserved large numbers of seats at their schools for the sons of wealthy Protestant Americans.

Defenders often argue that legacy students can strengthen multigenerational bonds within a university’s community, and create stronger bonds between the university and its alumni. Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College (undergraduate college of Harvard University), said legacy preferences place people with deep Harvard experience alongside those without it, creating a form of diversity. Some have suggested that well-off, multi-generational Harvard families are also more likely to  give more money to the school, which helps keep the school’s tuition low for families earning less than $150,000 a year. However, one major study found that schools who grant legacy status actually had no fundraising advantage over schools who do not. In fact, two of the top eight U.S. schools with the largest endowments are MIT (#6 overall with 16.5 billion) and Texas A&M (13.5 billion) which banned legacy-based admission over a decade ago.

This isn’t to say that legacy applicants are undeserving of their spots in colleges, however. “Legacy students do not have a say in where their parents chose to go to university and they do not necessarily support the flawed practice,” Cassandra Ng ’20 said. “But as students with a special amount of privilege and who do benefit from this flawed practice, their main responsibility regarding admissions should be using their privilege to help uplift their first-generation and low-income peers, groups still underrepresented in many institutions.”

Not enabling all applicants to have equal access to education and experience an environment that will allow them to grow and thrive is detrimental to our society. If America truly wants to fulfill its promise of social and economic mobility, then it must truly make these educational institutions available to everybody. Americans believe that anyone with enough grit and talent can move beyond the class into which they were born and live a better life than their parents. With this policy of legacy, this promise will never become true for everybody in American society. 

If America truly wants to fulfill its promise of social and economic mobility, then it must truly make these educational institutions available to everybody.