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Legacy Programs - Tradition or Exclusionary

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A policy known as Legacy gives an advantage to applicants who had family members that had attended the school in the past over applicants who did not have such connections. Admission to some schools is extremely competitive and legacy programs can have a large impact at these schools. An example of the impact is Harvard University. The acceptance rate for legacy applicants is 40%, compared to 11% for the entire applicant pool.

The 2003 Supreme Court ruling that upheld affirmative action in college admissions has brought legacy policies under scrutiny. Critics of both programs perceive them to be unfair policies that give some applicants an undeserved advantage over others. Several schools have dismantled their legacy programs in the last few years to make their admissions policies more consistent.

There has long been a debate among students, professors, and administrators over the pros and cons of legacy programs. Critics say that colleges and universities should end their preferential treatment of legacy applicants. They believe that such programs give an unfair advantage to some applicants over others who are just as deserving of admission, if not more so.

Opponents also say that legacy policies tend to benefit students who need the least help, because they generally come from well-educated and well-off families. Some believe that legacy programs detract from a schools goal of increasing diversity on campus and may even be racist, since legacy programs usually benefit whites more than blacks.

Supporters of legacy programs claim that they are important in building a sense of tradition and that legacy admissions tend to draw students and alumni closer to the school. This loyalty leads to larger alumni donations, which are essential for a school to thrive. Many believe that the influence of legacy programs has been overstated and that many students who are admitted due to their legacy status would have been admitted anyway because of their qualifications.

Legacy programs have their origins in the 1920s, when some of the nation’s elite schools began offering preference to the children of alumni in an effort to block the rising numbers of Jewish and Roman Catholic students. In the 1960s and 1970s, colleges and universities underwent a period of reform. Responding to social pressures, schools became increasingly open to minorities and women. These changes led to a decline in legacy programs, but they still remained.

Schools apply their legacy programs in different ways. At some schools, admission is determined by a point system. Applicants receive a set number of points for various qualifications. Under such systems, legacy applicants are bestowed points for their status. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for example, gives children of alumni four points; admission is determined on a 150-point scale. Other schools use their legacy programs more informally. Legacy status may be used as a potential tie-breaker in choosing who is accepted. The definition of legacy status also varies from school to school. Sometimes legacy programs include only children of alumni, while others categorize grandchildren and other relatives as legacies.

Proponents of legacy programs assert that they affect so few students that their impact is negligible. They point out that legacy only makes a difference at the nation’s most selective schools and is a non-issue for the majority of college applicants. At no more than 100 of the nation’s 3,500 colleges and universities are admissions competitive enough for such a status to matter.

Many observers say it is unlikely that other schools will discontinue legacy programs. It is believed that there is little the federal government can do to force schools, particularly private schools, to change their ways. Nonetheless, opponents of legacy programs continue to voice their criticism. While the future of legacy programs may be secure for now, the debate over them is unlikely to end anytime soon


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Matthew Westwood almost 6 years ago Matthew Westwood


Had to comment on this 3 year old post because somehow it floated to the top in a google search of Michigan admission processes. Unfortunately the author's data about the 150 point scale used at U of M was already 5 years out of date. The scale was abolished after Gratz v. Bollinger (2003).