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Harvard legacy admissions under fire

Students and education experts call for an end to built-in nepotism

The Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa, file

Harvard legacy admissions under fire

Duke University economics professor Peter Arcidiacono and two colleagues released a paper in December 2020 with a surprising premise: If Harvard University considered applicants solely on the basis of merit, up to three-fourths of its white students who met “preferred admissions” criteria (such as recruited athletes and legacy students) would not have been accepted.

In 2018, Arcidiacono gave expert testimony on behalf of Students for Fair Admission in its lawsuit against Harvard University over affirmative action policies. Two years earlier, in 2016, a U.S. District judge ordered Harvard to release its admissions data for 2009-2015.

The data revealed information about more than affirmative action policies. Arcidiacono said he expected to see legacy students, or students whose family members are alumni of the school, reflected in the data. But he hadn’t anticipated how much information he would find. “Probably the big surprise is the fact that it might be growing over time,” he said.

Politicians at the state and federal levels are considering bills that would end legacy admissions at most or all universities. In February, Democratic legislators in Congress put forward a bill that would forbid colleges that accept federal money from considering legacy status. The same month, lawmakers in Connecticut advanced a state-level bill to ban public and private colleges from utilizing the practice. Both bills are currently in committee.

The practice of admitting the relatives of alumni began at Dartmouth College in 1922. A 2011 Purdue University study suggested that some schools around that time used legacy admissions to limit the number of Jewish students. According to The Wall Street Journal, 48 percent of schools considered legacy status in 2019.

School officials say legacy admissions foster school pride. They have expressed concern that ending the practice would result in decreased alumni donations. However, after Texas A&M University ended its legacy admissions in 2004, studies revealed a tiny decrease in giving followed quickly by a huge jump.

Twenty-one education groups signed an open letter to college leaders in December 2021 calling for an end to legacy admissions, and students often express support for doing away with the practice. The release of the Harvard data may have something to do with the increased interest. “I think that part of it comes from the fact that people didn’t know how big the preferences were,” Arcidiacono said.

But Arcidiacono pointed out that most schools keep their admissions process confidential, so little is known about how much legacy preference affects admission outcomes. “That’s the problem,” Arcidiacono said. “You never get to see the data.”

The court order allowed experts to study how Harvard assigned preference to different groups of students. But even this data combines legacy students with other groups. Arcidiacono explained that the released Harvard data showed recruited athletes, legacy students, prospective students on the dean’s interest list, and the children of staff members, though the data cannot be teased out for legacy students as a class of their own. The group is referred to as ALDC. Nearly half of white students at Harvard fell under one of these categories, while less than 16 percent of black, Hispanic, and Asian American students were considered ALDC.

According to Arcidiacono, broadly speaking, the number of students admitted to Harvard as ALDC has grown slightly in recent years, comprising about the same percentage of the overall student body. But the overall number of non-ALDC applicants has ballooned. This means that the school accepts a much smaller percentage of non-ALDC students. Arcidiacono estimated about 75 percent of the admitted ALDC students in the data would not have been accepted without their specialized status.

“The general public believes that it is a meritocracy, that students have gotten in on their own merits,” said Rachel Fishman, deputy director for higher education research at the public policy think tank New America. “But there are a whole host of factors that are not based on merit that will tip the scale for some students, and legacy admissions is one of them.” She pointed out that community colleges and open access schools do not use legacy admissions. Schools that do consider legacy status tend to turn away a significant percentage of applicants, she said.

Leaders at Yale University and the University of Connecticut have spoken out against legislative involvement in college procedures. But Fishman said lawmakers should have some say in higher education policies around legacy admissions since these schools accept government money.

Arcidiacono agreed, but stopped short of defining what that involvement should look like. “At a minimum, there needs to be a lot more transparency in how the admissions operate,” he said. “If you want to have legacy preferences, fine—but you also have to turn over your data.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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