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College Legacy Admissions: Children of Alumni Get Special Treatment

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High school students are taught from early on that good grades, decent SAT scores and talent at extracurricular activities is essential for getting into college. Four years of dedication and hard work will pay off when it’s time to fill out college applications.

Well, maybe.

College Legacy Admissions are a Subject of Debate

Gaining admission into elite schools such as the Ivy League colleges can seem next to impossible, but certain students may have an unfair advantage: the children of alumni. Legacy admissions, or legacy preferences as they’re sometimes called, have been the subject of debate for quite awhile.

Simply put, legacy admissions are a preference that colleges and universities grant certain applicants based on their relationship to alumni of that school. These students are known as legacy students, or legacies, and they have a greater chance of getting into college because their parents or grandparents also attended the school.

A few years ago I read a book in which the main character was admitted to Harvard because her father went there. I didn’t pay much attention at the time (besides, it was a work of fiction) but legacy admissions are actually a long-standing practice. Traditionally, legacy students get into college at higher rates than their peers.

Groton High School Class of 1998

In 1998, several members of high school student Henry Park’s graduating class were accepted by elite colleges. In fact, 34 of Groton High School’s 79 graduates were admitted to Ivy League universities. The Wall Street Journal reported that Henry Park, who ranked 14th in the elite boarding school’s graduating class and also scored an impressive 1560 out of 1600 on his SATs, was turned down by Harvard, Yale, Brown and Columbia—all Ivy League colleges—as well as Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Henry Park’s parents were middle-class Korean immigrants who saved and scarified for their son to attend Groton High because of its notable college placement record, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the Ivy League. His parents did not attend any of the schools to which he applied; most of his classmates—who had lower grades and SAT scores than he did— received legacy admissions preferences.

Record Low College Admissions

Ten years later, an April 2008 ABC News report explained that Ivy League colleges such as Harvard and Princeton posted record-low admissions rates yet bragged about the diverse backgrounds of successful applicants that were granted admissions. ABC News contacted several universities which reported record-low acceptance rates to inquire whether their legacy admissions had also dropped and most declined to comment.

The number of legacy applicants accepted is something that elite schools don’t care to flaunt is the way that college consultant Michele Hernandez explains it. She is a college consultant and the former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College. To quote Hernandez, “It’s embarrassing. They don’t want to come out and say, ‘Hey, the overall admit rate was 10 percent but for legacies it’s 35.’ It makes the general public mad.”

Selective universities which use legacy preferences justify the practice of favoring the children of alumni and prospective donors because the potential gifts from donors can help subsidize scholarships, faculty salaries and other needs.

Legacy Preferences and Affirmative Action

Critics of college legacy admissions compare the practice to affirmative action policies which take factors such as race, religion or national origin into consideration in order to benefit a minority group as a way to counter the effects of discrimination.

A new book entitled Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions by Richard D. Kahlenberg was released on September 22, 2010. Kahlenberg, who often writes about education, equal opportunity, and civil rights, believes that it’s time for America to reevaluate and eliminate the favoritism given to the children of college alumni.

According to Inside Higher Ed, he feels that the elimination of affirmative action in several states makes it “hard to justify alumni preferences when you have gotten rid of help for minorities,” also noting that “we are going through a populist moment in this country, where there is anger at illegitimate preferences or unfair advantages for wealthy people, and it seems to me that this issue is one that’s plainly unfair and Americans get that.”

Will college legacy admissions preferences continue?

Only time will tell.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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