Is the college admissions process fair? According to some, the admissions process is scrupulously fair; to others, it is intrinsically biased. In this article, we will attempt to explore some of the nuances in the admissions process, including the issue of legacy admissions.
Legacy Admissions: The Main Question
What are legacy admissions anyway? As we touched on briefly in a previous article (How Colleges Judge Applications), legacy admissions are candidates whose parent or parents (or near relatives) attended the university.
This practice is often criticized, especially at elite institutions where legacies are most prevalent and conspicuous. The question then, given the external criticism schools face, is why they value legacies so highly?
What Makes a Legacy Applicant
Legacy applicants are the children or grandchildren of alumni. Simple, straightforward, and yet not the entire story. Those who attend elite institutions often go on to have successful careers, some gaining a great deal of wealth or recognition. This in turn allows them to provide increased resources for their children in turn.
Legacy admits do have an advantage, but some of that comes not just from the fact that their parents were educated at a top school, but what their parents achieved with the education they received. There are advantages inherent with wealth and status: the schools you attend, the activities you are able to participate in, and the opportunities which are open to you. Parents who have achieved success are better able to position their children for success in turn.
Legacy applicants are admitted more frequently than the average, but acceptance rates themselves are very low, at least at elite universities. Thus an increased acceptance rate may mean legacy students are admitted 15% of the time, as opposed to 8% for general admissions.
As the topline number of applicants has increased nationwide, many of those students applying are ones who otherwise would not apply to these schools, but decide to throw their hat into the ring, due to the ease of online applications and the marketing press from top colleges. While around three-fourths are academically qualified, only around 60% of students who apply have a real chance of getting in, based on factors judged beyond mere academics. Legacy students, due to their backgrounds, are more likely to be in this smaller subset, and their increased acceptance rate reflects this.
Why Schools Want Legacy Applicants
So why do elite universities accept students who don’t otherwise meet their rigorous standards?
The first reason is financial, and this is the reason given most often by schools when asked about legacy admit rates. Many schools rely on alumni donations to fund research, scholarships, and special programs — and if alumni believe that their children are more likely to get into a school, then their wallets are more likely to open. This sounds cynical, and it is, though colleges go to great lengths to stress that parents cannot buy admissions for their children via donations. Whether this is true in practice is unclear.
Schools also favor legacy admissions because of tradition and culture. Schools with strong traditions will favor legacies in order to transmit that culture to first generation attendees. Notre Dame, for example, which admits the highest percentage of legacy students of any top school, emphasizes school culture and lore. Notre Dame wants students who are aware of their roots, who care about the past.
A final reason schools favor legacy admissions is their yield rate. Yield, the number of admitted students who end up attending a school, is one of the components used by US News when determining their college rankings. Legacy students are far more likely than average to have that school be their top choice, and this makes legacy students much more likely to attend if they are admitted.
Taken together, these factors provide strong incentives for colleges to favor legacy candidates as a class.
Admissions and Legacy Students
The mandate to admit legacies comes from the top: from school presidents and trustees in charge of fundraising. So while the task of dealing with the minutiae of admissions decisions is undertaken by admissions officers, the broader policies of who is admitted and what a college is looking for are determined by presidents, deans, and boards of directors.
How then do admissions departments deal with legacy students? The methods vary, but a common approach is tagging and secondary review. Students who apply as legacies have this fact noted on their profiles, and it is a factor taken into consideration like any other. How much each college weighs and considers these students is unknown, but that it is factored in in many cases is certain.
Secondary review is a process applied not just to legacy students, but those who the school has deemed important, notable, or worth recruiting and admitting. This usually applies to legacy students, children of faculty, and first generation college students, although some schools may deem other students worthy of this on a case-by-case basis. After admissions decisions are mostly finalized for all other applicants, and these students have already received a preliminary reading and review, they are reviewed and judged a second time in the context of the full class.
This does not necessarily make any single applicant in this review pile more likely to get admitted, but applicants who end up in the secondary review have a better chance of admission overall than their peers.
Will applying as a legacy increase your chances of admission? Yes–to a point. Legacy candidates still need to meet the admissions criteria all accepted students do. If you do meet the necessary criteria, your path to admission is slightly easier, though not necessarily by much at the top schools.
While it’s easy to criticize this process, you will have an easier time navigating admissions if you understand it. We hope that by offering insight into different facets of the admissions process, you will be more secure on your own admissions journey.
If you want help navigating the treacherous waters of college admissions, feel free to reach out to us here at Ivy Scholars. We have a depth of experience in helping students get into the colleges that suit them best, and are always happy to hear from you.