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The data, released amid a lawsuit against Harvard University’s racially biased admissions practices, provided unprecedented insight into how the nation’s wealthiest university screened prospective students.
One fact that was discovered: Harvard applicants whose family members attended the Ivy League institution were almost six times more likely secure admission as those without parents who went to Harvard.
Harsh criticism of Harvard followed, as legacy admissions favored white and wealthy applicants and back to the racist campaign by the most prestigious colleges in the country, which around 1920 began to give preference to the children of former students, thereby reducing the enrollment of Jews and immigrants.
But the revelation was so startling in part because colleges generally don’t share information about legacy recognitions.
Legacy preferences are invested in admissions, but aside from a few notable institutions that drop them, Amherst College in 2021 and Johns Hopkins University a few years before — the public does not know whether and to what extent colleges take family background into account.
New report from Education Reform Now, a Washington, DC-based think tank, attempts to quantify some of these overwhelming trends in senior admissions. It also offers recommendations for better tracking and ultimately using legacy preferences.
Legacy acknowledges, history
For most of their history, Ivy League institutions have admitted students from a select group of independent colleges and boarding schools, leaving the undergraduate population predominantly male, white and Protestant, according to the report.
The number of students applying to college increased after World War II, however, and institutions became more selective, adopting admissions procedures that included bequests and excluding mostly Jewish applicants.
The report states that as of 2020, more than 780 faculties have considered legacy status. That’s about half of the four-year institutions that complete their common data set. About 80% of the 64 four-year colleges, which accept less than a quarter of applicants each year, give preference to the children of former students, the report said.
But the group of colleges dropping older enrollments has grown: More than 100 institutions have stopped relying on the metric since 2015, including top-ranked private nonprofits like the California Institute of Technology and well-known publics like the University of Florida.
James Murphy, the report’s author and senior policy analyst at Education Reform Now, said the findings challenge the narrative that preference legacies are intractable in college admissions.
“This should give courage to colleges, presidents and boards that this is not something we all do,” he said.
Murphy identified institutions using legacy admissions by combing through their collective datasets. Faculties use these documents to check whether family ties are taken into account during admission.
It’s an imperfect measure, Murphy said, because colleges can make mistakes when filling out common data sets. Or their responses may not represent their actual admissions practices.
Not accepting inheritance
Regardless, it’s time for colleges to stop using the old preferences, said Murphy, a self-proclaimed opponent of the practice.
This is “a textbook example of systemic racism,” he wrote in the report.
The matter became more pressing in his eyes than The US Supreme Court is launching a review race-conscious admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Oral arguments in the case begin on Monday.
If the high court were to strike down race-conscious admissions policies, as Murphy and legal experts expect, perpetuating the legacy will widen racial disparities in higher education, he said.
Even legacy admissions is already an unpopular concept — the report cites data and anecdotes that show it’s scorned across the political spectrum and by enrollment management experts.
For example, as early as 1966, the director of Yale University’s admissions department tried to reduce legacy enrollment, but incurred the wrath of alumni.
A few years later, the director was gone.
Fear of potential backlash from donors often prompts colleges to stick with legacy admissions, Murphy said.
One new study of admissions operations at the top-ranked institution found that the faculty identified more than 40% of alumni as potential top donors. The research was published this month in the American Sociological Review.
Colleges can defend the use of legacy preferences by presenting them as a way to build a shared community, Murphy said. President of Duke University earlier this year he argued for keeping the practice, saying that Duke “is an institution that was born in a family—the Duke family. We bear the name of this family. We represent the family, we talk about the family, so how is this reflected in our behavior?”
What should higher ed do?
Still, Murphy believes many institutions will reevaluate their reliance on legacy admissions, especially in light of the bad press generated by the Varsity Blues scandal, which exposed rich and famous parents who bribed their children into prestigious institutions.
In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Education should better track and share data on legacy admissions, which would help improve transparency on these issues, Murphy said.
The Department of Education could incorporate the use of legacy preferences into its annual collection of information on college demographic issues and then publish this disaggregated data.
More strongly, the department could condition a college receiving federal financial aid to eliminate legacy admissions, he said. Countries could act similarly, tying state aid revenues to the elimination of inherited preferences.
Colorado banned the acceptance of inheritance last year at public colleges. And Connecticut earlier this year proposed a bill ban the practice in private and public institutions, although it did not survive the legislative session. Several colleges in Connecticut opposed the legislation, arguing that lawmakers should not interfere in admissions decisions.
In 2019, California tried to ban bequest preferences among private foundations, but the law that eventually passed instead required them to disclose the number of bequests and donor children who apply, are accepted and enrolled each year.
This method of “public shaming” appears to have worked, Murphy said, as between 2020 and 2021 the proportion of bequests recognized fell at all but one of the reporting institutions. However, the law is also flawed, allowing private colleges to decide whether their policies constitute a legacy preference.
Murphy said critics of probate are becoming more aware of their problems.
“Data reporting will be necessary – but not sufficient,” he said.