On a sunny morning in the fall of 2009, I visited a cottage in upstate New York that housed Vassar College’s admissions department. I was there to take part in the most widespread and nefarious system used by mostly white, mostly wealthy people to sidestep the admissions process at American colleges.
It’s not as headline-grabbing as an alleged national criminal conspiracy involving celebrities, business leaders, and corrupt sports coaches, but the legacy system — in which colleges give preference to applicants whose family members also attended that school — is a far more popular method for giving a helping hand to applicants who need it the least.
When I visited Vassar at the height of admissions season, other aspiring students would have been in a hectic scramble, angling for face time with an admissions officer. But when we showed up, my mother and I sat in the waiting room completely alone. Applicants like me and my sister got special interviews, and were ultimately accepted to Vassar, because our mom went there.
Today’s revelation that dozens of parents, college coaches, and test prep executives carried out a nationwide admissions scam has cast new scrutiny on the shortcuts, legal and otherwise, that the wealthy take to get their children into top schools. It's good to see these frauds exposed. But the legacy admissions system is a far greater disgrace, and it’s time for it to be abolished once and for all.
The injustice of the system is clear. Legacy applicants are accepted to Harvard at a rate nearly five times higher than that of nonlegacy applicants, according to an analysis by Students for Fair Admissions, a group whose litigation with Harvard — aimed at ending race-conscious admissions policies — has uncovered a wealth of previously obscure admissions data. An internal Harvard report from 2012, disclosed during the court proceedings, acknowledges that the school’s preferences for the children of donors and alumni mostly benefit white students.
Since about three-quarters of US News & World Report’s top 100 colleges offer a legacy boost, the kids of parents who went to prestigious schools enjoy this special advantage at schools across the country.
And who are these kids?
Most, like me, are rich and white. Nearly 25% of all white students accepted to Harvard had legacy status, SFFA found, compared to 7% of Asian American and Latino accepted applicants and 5% of black accepted applicants.
The entire legacy system is intertwined with the shameful history of preference for white students at elite schools. In the 1920s, as upwardly mobile immigrants began pushing for acceptance to the Ivy League, legacy proved a useful way to ensure native-born, WASP hegemony, at least for a few more decades. Today, it continues to disadvantage immigrants and first-generation college students, among others.
The time has come to abandon a system that gives the children of elite college graduates a head start over everyone else. But how can we do it?
Easy: Ban it.
That may sound drastic to American ears, but it’s far from uncommon. The concept is virtually unheard of in the rest of the world, and has already been outlawed at some of America's best schools, including MIT and Caltech. Elite colleges could respond to public pressure and get rid of it on their own, but the government could also take action. Eliminating a special benefit for the children of elite college graduates might be one of the few things today's Democrats and Republicans could vigorously agree on.
College admissions are a marketplace where parents compete to fetch the best deal — the best school, the best future career prospects, the best social capital — for their children. Legacy preference represents a serious market failure: Of course every parent wants to exploit it, but in doing so they make society as a whole worse off, diminishing the diversity of higher education and exacerbating inequality. By banning legacy admissions, governments or even colleges themselves can prevent parents’ inevitable interest in their children’s education from doing serious socioeconomic harm.
Of course, legacy admissions is just one thread in the tapestry of tricks and shortcuts that rich parents use to get their kids into good colleges. I was also the beneficiary of many others, including one-on-one tutoring, a personal college counselor, faculty child preferences (thanks for the acceptance, Columbia!) — not to mention the advantages wealth incurs in children before they even start kindergarten. But legacy is one of the most widespread shortcuts. It’s one of the least defensible, and it’s perhaps the easiest to stop.
What would that mean for the legacy kids? They’ll be fine. In the end, I didn’t even go to Vassar. I enrolled in Swarthmore College, another elite liberal arts school. They offered on-campus interviews to all applicants — no legacy required.