Actually, Legacy Preference Is a Good Deal

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Legacy preference, the practice of an institution giving admissions preferences to children and relatives of alumni, has recently come under fire in the media, especially because of the ongoing litigation surrounding the admissions practices of Harvard University. Legacy preference is oft lambasted for enshrining a wealthy white aristocracy at elite universities, perpetuating unfair class divides and pushing out underprivileged applicants. However, there are many solid justifications for preserving the centuries-old practice. 

For instance, legacies create a multigenerational connection to an institution which in turn promotes alumni giving. Most private universities rely heavily on gifts to sustain themselves. At Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, tuition only accounts for 22% of annual revenue. This is in part due to 55% of the student body receiving financial aid, with 25% of the student body attending on a “full ride.” As a result of this limited funding from tuition, 44% of Harvard’s annual revenue comes from gifts. 

(Full disclosure: three of the parents of this article’s writers attended Harvard)

Both the Vice President for Finance and the Treasurer recognize in the Financial Report for the 2018 fiscal year that “Harvard’s annual funding is deeply dependent upon its generous donors.” In order to fund the roughly $5 billion annual budget, the school taps extensive giving networks primarily consisting of Harvard alumni. How do those networks become established and how are they sustained? Legacy preference contributes greatly. It fosters a relationship with the school and thus increases giving, allowing for more aggressive spending in areas like infrastructure, academic programming, and financial aid. Admitting legacies, who tend to come from wealthy backgrounds (43.2% of legacies in the Harvard Class of 2019 reported family incomes greater than $500,000 per year), enables institutions to provide extremely generous financial aid programs in the noble quest for diversity in the student body.

Legacy preferences create a community that is willing to cooperate in funding the particular school. In a recent interview with the Cornell Daily Sun, Martha Pollack, the President of Cornell University said that “the idea of legacy admissions, it seems to me, is that we are trying to create a Cornell family that goes on for generations.” The practice of legacy preferences is explicitly designed with a “deep multigenerational connection” in mind. 

While an active and engaged alumni community is certainly quite beneficial for other reasons, alumni are a financial resource. Because giving is so necessary for nearly all major private universities, potential donors must be maximized. The system of legacy admissions and the wealthy alumni community it creates are absolutely vital to the financial solvency of the nation’s best schools. Until something drastic changes in the way higher education works country-wide, legacy preference is here to stay, along with the buildings, teachers, classes, and financial aid programs it supports.

With all that being said, legacy admissions provide institutions with more benefits than simply economic ones. As the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, “Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.” When a college admits children of alumni, they establish an intergenerational community that makes a college experience unique. 

An active alumni community supports the school by attending events, stewarding organizations, and providing career opportunities to graduates. Legacy preference is absolutely key to the maintenance of such an engaged alumni body, by not only tying multiple generations to the school but by incentivizing graduate parents to preserve their activity with the school in the hopes of improving the chances of their children. And, while this may sound somewhat like an unfair advantage in the admissions process which would lead to less qualified applicants, for the most part this is not actually the case. 

Legacy applicants are generally well qualified for placement at their parent’s alma maters and can augment their class greatly. To quote the former Dean of Admissions at Yale, Jeffrey Brenzel in The Yale Daily News, “legacy applicants on average present academic qualifications substantially stronger than non-legacy applicant … the average legacy applicant is more competitive in the process, even without any regard paid to legacy status.” While this is almost certainly a product of socioeconomic and educational privilege, it is largely undeniable that most legacy students are amply qualified to attend the schools at which they are accepted. Furthermore, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard, William R. Fitzsimmons, described legacy applicants in a 2011 interview as a “self-selecting group.” Of course, as with any demographic group, there will be outliers, but for the most part legacies are smart, engaged, and dedicated. 

Ultimately, legacy preference is an integral part of the private university system. Without legacies, institutions of higher learning would lose out on billions of dollars in donations and the chance to build something that lasts beyond a student’s four years at school while accepting no more qualified students than before. Legacies allow for generous financial aid programs, effective networking opportunities, and a lasting culture of school spirit. Sure, they may be privileged, but that privilege in no way lessens the immense positive impact that legacy preference has upon educational institutions. Legacies are essential for a school’s community, and without them, the nation’s best universities would likely be very different places than they are today.