November 16, 2020

WANG | Abolish Legacy Preference in College Admissions

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Once again, college application season is upon us. Even in this extraordinarily unprecedented time, millions of high schoolers are getting ready to apply to one of the approximately 2800 four-year colleges in America. Many have already submitted applications through early or rolling admission. All of this means we should once again talk about the persisting inequities in the college process. Recently, discussions over how fair the college process truly is has come up as a result of the debate over affirmative action and the recent college admissions scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues. But I believe the real issue in college admissions is the preference given to legacy applicants. After all, legacy preference is the most overt way an applicant can get an edge in the admissions process. And they still play a role in a significant number of American colleges and universities, with approximately 42 percent of private colleges and universities, including Cornell, factoring in legacy status in admissions. Here at Cornell, legacies make up around 15 percent of the student body. Yet at best, legacies mostly benefit already socioeconomically privileged kids, and at worst, they promote a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity on college campuses. 

Legacy admissions have long had a controversial and troubled past that’s rooted in keeping certain groups out of elite universities. After all, legacy preference to applicants was initially established after World War I to stop the rapid increase of Jewish students. While legacy admissions does not carry such an overtly discriminatory tone today, the policy still serves to mainly benefit the same people it initially was meant to protect, namely white and generally wealthy prospective applicants. 

While most colleges, including Cornell, tend to keep their statistics regarding legacies under wraps, we can look at the legacy makeup at one of our peer institutions: Harvard. Because of the recent lawsuit against Harvard over alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants, much of Harvard’s data on legacy admissions have been made publicly available. A study done using this data discovered that 43 percent of white students, compared to less than 16 percent of students of color,  were either recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff or students on the children of major donors to Harvard. The study ended up concluding that “removing either of these [legacy and athlete] preferences would result in significantly fewer white admits with increases or no change in the number of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American admits.” 

This preference given to children of legacies also disadvantages low-income students even more in the college process, contributing to the lack of socioeconomic diversity on many college campuses. After all, at Harvard, 67 percent of students come from the top 20 percent, while here at Cornell, 64 percent of students come from families in the top 20 percent. Legacy students tend to be wealthier, and thus already have an edge, as they likely have access to better resources such as a private school education or personal college counselors. At my private high school, I would estimate at least a third of the people in my grade of 55 had legacy connections of some sort, which probably contributed to the over 20 of us that ended up at Ivy League universities. 

Additionally, a common argument in favor of legacy admission is that it makes alumni more likely to donate to their alma mater. But when a group of researchers looked at data for the top 100 universities from 1998 to 2008, they found no proof that legacy preferences influence alumni donations. In fact, from 1980 to 2010, as the proportion of students with legacy status decreased, total alumni giving increased. And other prestigious universities, such as Oxford and MIT, do not consider legacy status in admissions decisions, and neither their reputation nor their financial health has suffered. 

Honestly, I don’t think getting rid of legacies will solve the mess that is college admissions. There are already so many other things that give wealthier applicants a leg up in the college process. But legacy preference is one of the few policies that overtly benefit generally wealthy and white students, who are already among the most privileged when it comes to college admissions. To me, it’s just the first step in making the college process more meritocratic, one that better models the core value of this country, that if one works hard enough, one can accomplish anything. 

Wendy Wang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ww376@cornell.edu. Common Nonsense runs every other Friday this semester.