Should Colleges End Legacy Preferences?

Illustration by Tom Garrett

Many public and private colleges give preferential treatment in the admissions process to the children of alumni, who are known as legacies. As admission rates at the country’s most selective colleges have dropped lower and lower in recent years—meaning schools are turning away greater numbers of applicants—this practice, known as legacy preferences, has increasingly become a subject of debate. A 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed found that 42 percent of private schools, including most of the country’s elite universities, use legacy preferences.


Two college administrators square off about whether it’s time to end the practice.

America’s colleges and universities are the envy of the world. At its best, our higher education system represents an opportunity to achieve the American dream—the idea that through hard work, any person can become successful and have a better life than their forebears. Increasingly, however, America’s colleges are seen by the public as working counter to the American dream, stymieing access to opportunities for those who would make the most of them.

The practice of legacy preferences is one prominent way that the public sees these institutions working against social mobility. This public skepticism is warranted. By definition, legacy preferences give an advantage to the already advantaged, students with greater than usual amounts of educational, if not financial, capital.

A hundred years ago, legacy preferences were conceived and implemented to exclude students from outside the elite at a time when Jewish immigrants and their children were, for the first time, entering American colleges in significant numbers. Legacy preferences were a tool to keep the number of Jewish students low and to perpetuate the advantages of the privileged.

Legacy preferences give an advantage to students who are already advantaged.

While evidence is mixed on whether attending a highly resourced college today actually provides an advantage in life to all students, the research is clear on one thing: Colleges with substantial resources provide significant benefits to first-generation college students and students from historically marginalized backgrounds. Any change that opens up more opportunity for these students would increase social mobility and make for a more equitable society.

I hope America’s colleges and universities will end legacy preferences as Amherst did in 2021. Doing so would open the doors of opportunity to many more talented young people. And perhaps as importantly, it would send a strong message to the public that our schools seek to live up to their missions of being engines of social mobility as well as places to learn. 



Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, Amherst College

As recently as the 1950s, seats in the freshman class would often pass from one generation of White men to the next without much regard for merit. But college admissions has changed dramatically; the process is more democratic and largely based on merit.

Admissions officers consider many factors as they try to create balanced classes with students who have particular talents and a variety of backgrounds. Whether an applicant is a legacy should be one of those factors because it’s important to sustaining two qualities at the core of the college experience: school spirit and a lasting sense of community.

Like all admitted students, alumni children must have the necessary academic achievements. But they also bring unique qualities of tradition, loyalty, and pride of place.

A generation ago, legacy admissions still favored wealthy White children. But the alumni rolls of U.S. colleges grow more diverse every year. African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are a big part of today’s college classes. Alumni children are increasingly multicultural and can be part of the diversity most colleges seek.

Alumni children bring unique qualities of tradition, loyalty, and pride of place.

Ensuring that a portion of each class has a particularly close connection to the school also helps keep alumni giving strong. And not all “giving” is in dollars. Speaking well of one’s alma mater, referring applicants, and offering students internship opportunities all add to a university’s worth.

Legacies are only a small part of the admissions pie. Affirmative action policies that provide opportunities for disadvantaged students and promote diversity on campus are also critical; if the Supreme Court bans affirmative action policies next year, schools should likewise rethink legacy preferences. But until then, the criteria for a sound legacy admissions policy are moderation and balance: accept a qualified few; use judgment; find talent and readiness; diversity is imperative. In other words, the criteria are the same as they are for musicians, mathematicians, and basketball players. Legacies should be treated no worse.



Former President, George Washington University

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