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Family Connections: Legacy Admissions Under Fire

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Apparently when it comes to elite colleges in this country, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

and who your parents are.

A new study of admissions at thirty selective colleges and universities has found that legacy applicants, students with relatives that attended the school, have a big advantage over students without family ties. The study also found that students whose parents earned an undergraduate degree at the college have far more benefit than those with other family connections to the institution, reports the New York Times.

Mom and Dad Give Students an Advantage

Conducted by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the study was the first to compare the advantage to students applying to a parent’s alma mater with that of students with other family ties.

Hurwitz looked at data from 133,236 applicants for 2007 college admission and analyzed the outcomes of the 61,962 who applied to more than one of the elite colleges. This process allowed him to compare how much more likely students were to be offered admission to schools where they had family connections.

He found that applicants to a parent’s alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission of non-legacy applicants. By comparison, students whose parents attended graduate school at the college or who had a grandparent, sibling, uncle or aunt that attended the college were twice as likely to be admitted.

Legacy Admissions Show No Effect on Fundraising

The practice of elite colleges giving special preference to students with family connections to the school is nothing new, but legacy admissions policies have come under fire in recent years. Colleges claim that legacy preferences help build cross-generational relationships with institutions and cement relationships with alumni donors, reports Inside Higher Ed, but a study featured in Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions by Richard D. Kahlenberg finds no evidence that legacy preferences actually raise more money for schools.

Newsweek Education reports that Texas A&M University discontinued legacy admissions in 2004 after the Houston Chronicle revealed that over 300 applicants got in because of family connections. Texas A&M spokesman Lane Stephenson said the school has seen “no measurable effect on fundraising.”

Family donations were not included in the data used for Hurwitz’s study. “I was able to take into account all the applicant’s characteristics because they were the same at every school they applied to. About the only thing that would be different was their legacy status,” he told the New York Times.

Legacy Admissions vs. Affirmative Action

Thomas P. Espenshade, a Princeton sociologist who has also studied legacy admissions, pointed out that legacy status is just one of many possible advantages, saying, “We did a paper that found that if you are an athlete, you have 4.2 times the likelihood of admission as a nonathlete. The advantages for underrepresented minorities are pretty big, too.”

Even so, lawyers are questioning the legality of legacy admissions— especially now that some state schools have succeeded in banning affirmative action, the set of policies designed to promote the inclusion of all people regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“It reinforces and duplicates class stratification,” Steve Shadowen, a Pennsylvania lawyer who contributed a chapter to Affirmative Action for the Rich, told Newsweek Education. “Some schools have no affirmative action for minorities—but they have it for people with the right ancestry.”

Shadowen filed a Freedom of Information Act request to a dozen schools in 11 states to gather information about their admission policies and determine which school might potentially serve as a test case for a lawsuit.

A Sense of Community

Those on the opposite side of the fence take a much different stance on legacy admissions.

“It’s about building a sense of community and even family. It creates a sense of lifelong engagement with the institution,” says John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an association of educational institutions whose members include alumni and development officials.

Robert Massa, vice president of communications for Lafayette College and previously dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University, agrees, claiming, “Part of building a community is including people who have a connection to the community.”


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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