Elite colleges and universities say they want to diversify their student bodies, and yet they continue to favor white students with certain credentials and fail to keep up with the changing demographics in our country. Despite affirmative action, Black and Hispanic students were more underrepresented at top colleges in 2015 than they were in 1980, though their numbers improved at some elite schools during the pandemic.
One reason: children of alumni. Known as legacy students, these students are up to eight times more likely to be accepted at elite colleges, according to one estimate. In the affirmative action cases currently before the Supreme Court, rarely seen admissions data has been made public and it shows that children of Harvard alumni were accepted at a rate of 33.6 percent in the classes of 2014–19, compared with 5.9 percent for non-legacies, according to a 2021 report in the Boston Globe. As more and more high schoolers apply to top schools, their chances tumble while the acceptance rate for legacies remains constant. The unfairness of it all only seems to grow. And because so few parents of color have graduated from these colleges, legacy admissions remain overwhelmingly white.
To find out why elite colleges love legacies, two business school professors were granted access to 16 years of admissions data at one elite Northeastern college. The upshot: it’s in this school’s clear self-interest to take them. Alumni children who received offers matriculated at much higher rates, giving the school more certainty in their future enrollment numbers. And these loyal families with multi-generational ties to the college were far more likely to donate funds, money that the school needs, in part, to offer scholarships to others.
“We see evidence that the use of legacy admissions comes at the cost of diversity in the student body,” said Ethan Poskanzer, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Colleges have different goals in the admissions process, which are to get qualified students, to get students who will be materially supportive, and to increase diversity. Those can be in competition. Legacy admissions is a case where those goals come into conflict with one another.”
Poskanzer’s study, “Through the Front Door: Why Do Organizations (Still) Prefer Legacy Applicants?” was written with Emilio Castilla at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and published in the October 2022 issue of the American Sociological Review.