Challenging Legacy Admissions

The role America’s top universities play in perpetuating socioeconomic and racial inequality

The practice of giving admissions preference to legacy students, or children of alumni, is widespread at highly selective institutions — schools that some researchers say provide their students with more advantages than other less selective colleges and universities. 

[Above: The clock tower at Cornell University, where students petitioned for greater transparency regarding legacy admissions (photo by Clarice Oliveira)]

Given the benefits these institutions provide — more money spent per pupil, better retention rates, and higher projected future earnings for graduates, for example — and research showing that underrepresented minorities make up a small percentage of the legacy applicant pool, many worry that weighing an applicant’s legacy status in the admissions process impedes access to higher education for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students. Their concerns resonate in the current populist political climate, in which the perceived elitism of higher education has come under attack from a variety of stakeholders.

In February, a coalition of students at 12 elite colleges and universities, including Brown, Princeton, and Cornell, wrote a joint letter to their respective institutions calling on them to publish all of their internal documents and data regarding the legacy admissions process. Organized by EdMobilizer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to equalizing access to higher education, the coalition aims to lead a review, via student and alumni panels, that could eventually end the practice. 

In the letter, students cite criticism of legacy admissions by William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, stating that “the lasting impact of these practices reaches far beyond higher education, helping to reinforce cycles of class inequity and hampering economic mobility in America.” 

EdMobilizer launched its #FullDisclosure Initiative to encourage colleges and universities to re-evaluate legacy admissions in response to a report issued by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The report found, among other things, that high-achieving, low-income students are vastly underrepresented at most U.S. selective colleges and universities. Additionally, nationwide, college students have been vocalizing their discontent with the lack of transparency surrounding a practice that appears to solely benefit white, wealthy students. 

Mayra Valadez
Mayra Valadez

According to Director of University Partnerships at EdMobilizer Mayra Valadez, a 2018 graduate of Cornell University and a self-described low-income and first-generation college student, very little institutional data or record keeping is made public about legacy admissions.

In response to students’ demands, Logan Powell, dean of admission at Brown University, wrote an op-ed in The Brown Daily Herald in which he stated that at Brown, “there is no written policy about how applicants’ status as a child of an alum may be considered in the admission process.” He also wrote that legacy status is one of several tie-breaking factors.— along with having talent in the area of science, being the first in one’s family to attend college, or being a veteran or a student-athlete.— considered in admissions decisions. 

Furthermore, Powell asserted that legacy students have something unique to offer highly selective institutions: They often grow up immersed in these institutions’ values and can serve as mentors to other students on campus. Their families also tend to donate significant funds to the schools that they attend. 

The Van Wickle Gates at Brown University (photo by Daniel Mennerich)
The Van Wickle Gates at Brown University (photo by Daniel Mennerich)

His main point, however, was that the controversy over legacy admissions distracts student activists from the broader issue of increasing access to elite colleges and universities. “Presenting a trade-off between access to Brown for first-generation and low-income students and children of alums is a false dichotomy,” he wrote. According to Powell, 13 percent of Brown’s Class of 2021 is first-generation and 40 percent is students of color, while only 11 percent is legacies. 

Richard D. Kahlenberg, JD, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who edited a book about legacy admissions titled Affirmative Action for the Rich, disputes Powell’s claims. Based on his research, he believes the practice of giving preference to children of alumni has been unjust from its inception. “Legacy preferences have a dark and sordid history,” he says. 

After World War I, Kahlenberg explains, when immigrant students — especially Jewish immigrant students — were qualifying for acceptance into colleges and universities “on traditional meritocratic criteria,” legacy preference was instituted to replace the less politically correct Jewish quotas. 

Furthermore, he argues that legacy admissions is inherently un-American. Ironically, U.S. universities are the only institutions in the world that consider legacy status as part of the admissions process.

Michael Lind, JD, co-founder of the New America Foundation and co-author of Affirmative Action for the Rich, wrote in the book that “legacy preferences introduce an aristocratic snake” into U.S. colleges and universities by allowing admissions decisions to be dictated by “wealth and birth.” Indeed, statistics seem to support Lind’s notion that most highly selective colleges and universities are home to an “artificial aristocracy based on wealth,” despite many of them touting initiatives that purportedly increase access for low-income and minority students. 

In 2017, The New York Times published a study that tracked economic diversity at the University of Pennsylvania and other elite colleges and universities. According to the study, which analyzed millions of anonymous tax records, 19 percent of Brown University’s student population came from families that made approximately $630,000 or more per year — representing the top 1 percent of incomes in the U.S. Conversely, only 4.1 percent of the university’s students in 2017 came from families that made $20,000 or less per year. 

Kahlenberg and Valadez believe these data are proof that legacy admissions contributes to the under-enrollment of low-income students at selective institutions. They both cite evidence that white students disproportionately benefit from the practice. “At Harvard, the new incoming class is about one-third legacy, and of that, approximately 98 percent are white students,” says Valadez. Furthermore, Kahlenberg says that underrepresented minorities comprise 12.5 percent of applicants to elite colleges and universities but only 6.7 percent of legacy applicants. 

He also debates the notion that legacy admits provide colleges and universities with much-needed financial support. “Research connecting legacy preferences and alumni giving is remarkably thin,” he wrote, pointing to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which doesn’t employ legacy admissions, as an example. In 2008, Caltech raised $71 million in alumni donations, just short of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) $77 million, despite the fact that MIT admits legacy students and is a much larger institution. 

Other experts question the legality of the practice. Specifically, attorneys Steve Shadowen, JD, and Sozi Tulante, JD, argue that legacy admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866; both ban preference by any institution on the basis of lineage or ancestry. 

Over the years, a few politicians have attempted to investigate the issue; however, the lack of legal action regarding the practice exists in sharp contrast to the number of court cases challenging the consideration of race in college admissions. In fact, the few schools that have done away with legacy admissions, such as those within the University of California System and Texas A&M University, have succeeded in making the change only as part of a broader effort to eliminate race-based admissions decisions. 

Ultimately, it may be EdMobilizer’s #FullDisclosure Initiative that pushes the issue to the courts. On March 14, shortly after Powell’s letter was published, students at Brown University voted in favor of joining the initiative to convince administrators to disclose the details of the school’s legacy admissions process in order to review its legitimacy. Also in March, a majority of student government officers at Duke University voted to join the campaign, as student leaders announced their plans to discuss the issue with the school’s dean of admissions, Christoph Guttentag. 

Alexis Rodriguez-Camacho
Alexis Rodriguez-Camacho

Alexis Rodriguez-Camacho, one of the co-founders and co-directors of EdMobilizer, says that the organization is “continuing to work with students, administrators, and alumni to critically reflect on the practice of legacy admissions and its validity in higher education.” The organization will also “launch and continue to support campus-wide referendums, engage alumni, and work with administrators to share … data.” 

Although these student activists are seeking to eradicate a practice that could potentially open up opportunities for their own families, Valadez rejects the notion that her children will need any preferential treatment. “I know that I’m going to grow up and get a white-collar job,” she says. “I’m going to provide my kids access to decent public education, to SAT tutoring, to personal college coaching if that’s what they want, and I have my own lived experience that I can share with them as well.”●

Ginger O’Donnell is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more about EdMobilizer, visit