The Legacy Factor

Barry Lenson
For years, it’s been an open secret that students get preferential treatment when applying to the colleges that their parents attended.
Is that fair? It depends. Colleges think it is a good idea. Applicants who lack the right connections tend to disagree.
Colleges have fielded a number of justifications for the practice. Some of these reasons sound good, others less so. Some colleges say that legacy candidates are stronger applicants because they grew up in households that placed a high value on education. Of course, that justification doesn’t explain why the child of a Princeton grad doesn’t get insider status when applying to Yale, Brown or another Ivy League school.
One reason for legacy admission is obvious, however. Alumni give more money to their alma maters when their kids get in. Period. This could be one reason why elite colleges don’t usually release figures on the number of legacy applicants they admit. They don’t want anybody publishing statistics on their preferential fundraising strategies.
Finding these statistics isn’t easy, but some were published in a 2008 ABC News article, “Top Colleges Mum on Legacy Admissions.” Alice Gomstyn, who wrote that article, parted the curtains to reveal what was going on in the admissions offices of some of America’s tweediest colleges during one of the most competitive years ever for college applications.
Gomstyn’s digging turned up some of the following facts and figures about legacy admits:
Yale University accepted only 8.3 percent of all applicants that year. However, legacy students made up between 13 and 16 percent of incoming classes for the preceding 10 years.
Princeton University had a record of accepting 40 percent of legacy applicants – about four times the admit rate for non-legacy applicants.
Dartmouth College offered admission to 13.2 percent of its applicants that year, but had an acceptance rate 2 to 2.5 times higher than that for legacy applicants.
Middlebury College admitted 48 percent of legacy applicants that year. Compare that to 18% percent for non-alumni children.
Bowdoin College had a record of admitting 40 percent of legacy applicants, vs. 18.4 percent of the general applicant pool.
How fair is that? Does it reflect an elitist power structure that exists to keep the hoi polloi out of America’s most elite institutions? It’s tempting to give a knee-jerk reaction and say, “Yes it does!” But then you consider that most American schools also grant preferential status to other special groups, such as athletes and minority applicants. And much to their credit, many prestigious colleges grant preferential treatment to applicants whose parents did not attend college at all.
So if you decide to attend a college where you don’t have a parent connection, has the deck been stacked against you? Because that question is so complex, it’s difficult to answer. Unless, of course, you are a great student whose parents went to a university like Princeton or Yale. If that’s your situation, you had better get online and send in your application fast.
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