Illustration by Evelyn Hsy
See the dissenting opinion by Kira Jones here.
In 2019, a federal investigation known as “Operation Varsity Blues” exposed massive fraud and bribery in college admissions. The shockwaves of the investigation rippled through American high schools. Many pleaded guilty to accusations, including celebrities like actress Lori Laughlin and even a few M-A families.
The public was outraged that rich applicants could directly take spots away from more deserving students because of their connections and money. Yet, the college admissions process is plagued with an even more pervasive injustice that’s been public knowledge for a century: legacy admissions.
Legacy admissions is a policy used at certain colleges that gives preferential treatment to applicants whose close relatives attended or are faculty at that institution—in short, institutionalized nepotism.
The Ivies, Stanford, and many other prestigious universities give considerable preference to the relatives of alumni and faculty. With single-digit acceptance rates, these schools are also the most selective.
It’s difficult to measure the boost legacy gives to applicants. Certainly, students whose parents attended Harvard or Stanford still need stellar grades to be accepted. But, higher-education analyst Michael Hurwitz found students with legacy have a 45% higher chance of admission compared to equally qualified applicants at 30 elite institutions.
For many people, college is the single best investment they can make, opening up new financial opportunities through quality education and substantial networking. College is a major pathway to the middle and upper class for low-income students, but the legacy system ignores their potential and awards limited spots to predominately wealthy, well-connected students instead. Any time someone is accepted, someone else is not.
Colleges proclaim that admissions are meritocratic, rewarding students based on achievement so that any talented student can work hard enough to succeed. Students across the country dedicate hundreds of hours to activities, essays, and schoolwork for college admissions. Legacy violates basic fairness at the cost of those without family ties. Colleges fail to fulfill their promise of equity by giving preferential treatment to the lucky children of alumni and staff.
Despite having legacy at Cornell, senior Daniel Weiner said, “I think it’s extremely unfair. If I could end it I would because it’s really just a way to admit students who are sometimes unqualified.”
One student whose parents both went to Stanford said, “I don’t really think legacy is equitable, but I might as well take advantage of it.” The student applied under Restrictive Early Action (REA) to Stanford but said, “I don’t think I would’ve applied REA if I didn’t have legacy.”
While legacy admissions is an unethical system, students should not be faulted for using it strategically in their application process, especially as admissions to top universities become increasingly competitive. Change must come from the institutions responsible for the policy.
Former M-A student and current math teacher Kristen Bryan said, “It was frustrating to see other students whose parents worked at Stanford or whose siblings attended Stanford get admitted when I did not. I believed I was at least equally, if not more, qualified. It felt very inequitable.”
Legacy traces its origins to antisemitism in the 1920s. According to Business Insider, the most prestigious schools in the nation created it primarily to prevent an influx of Jewish students as a result of mass immigration from Eastern Europe. Despite current efforts to diversify their student body, the preference given to legacy students perpetuates inequalities.
Nationwide, students from underrepresented groups are the least likely to have legacy. For example, white students make up 70% of Harvard legacies, according to NBC News. At M-A, in a survey of 182 students, 28% of white students reported having legacy at an Ivy, Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, or the University of Chicago. 27% of Asian students and only 5% of Black and Latinx students reported having legacy at these schools.
M-A has a unique connection to some of these elite institutions because Silicon Valley attracts many of their graduates. M-A is also walking distance from Stanford University, and many alumni and faculty members choose to live in the surrounding area, so their children end up at high schools like M-A. 15% of surveyed students reported that one or more of their parents went to an Ivy, Duke, Northwestern, UChicago, or Stanford, the latter leading the group at 8.2% of students. Additionally, a staggering 14.3% reported one or more of their parents is a current Stanford employee.
These connections have seemingly increased the acceptance rates of M-A students at elite universities. According to data from Naviance, M-A’s primary college application interface, Stanford admitted 14.6% of the 376 M-A applicants over the past seven years—more than three times the overall acceptance rate. Similarly, Harvard, with 4.2% of M-A students reporting legacy, has an acceptance rate of M-A students that is twice their overall acceptance rate.
The M-A acceptance rates to non-legacy universities illustrate that M-A’s success at schools like Stanford is not solely due to academics. At University of California (UC) schools, which do not have a legacy preference, M-A students were accepted at only 101.4% of the average in-state rate. This means that across more than 5,000 applications to the UC schools over seven years, M-A students were almost exactly average. M-A does produce high-achieving students, but the link between legacy rates and acceptances to specific universities clearly demonstrates the influence of legacy. At times, our admissions are not a reflection of students’ achievements, but rather their connections.
M-A’s data reflects national trends. So, why have universities continued this historically racist nepotism? A 2017 Harvard committee said, “Harvard alumni also offer generous financial support to their alma mater. That financial support is essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning… The committee is concerned that eliminating [legacy preference] would diminish this vital sense of engagement and support.”
On the value of alumni donations and its impact on legacy admissions, Weiner said, “I see the universities’ perspectives. They don’t want to lose a lot of donations from alumni by not admitting their kids.”
Senior Mark McGuire said, “They’re private institutions. I think they should be allowed to choose the criteria they use to evaluate applicants.” However, while these schools are private institutions, they also claim to provide a public service. For this reason, they’re offered generous tax breaks, often to the detriment of their local communities. Many private universities, including Stanford and all of the Ivies, are registered as nonprofits and don’t pay property taxes. We are subsidizing these schools as if they are public institutions providing a public good, while excusing their inequitable admissions policies because they’re “private.”
Moreover, despite elite universities’ complaints about losing donations, a ten-year study tracking U.S News & World Report’s Top 100 American Universities said, “There is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”
But regardless of whether abandoning legacy preference reduces donations, these prestigious universities do not need the money anyway. For example, in 2023, Princeton’s investment returns on its $37.7 billion endowment are predicted to produce $3.7 billion, more than double its operating budget. Princeton could accept no donations, charge zero dollars for tuition, and still make well over a billion dollars in profits from investments. Princeton is perfectly capable of surviving without alumni donations, so the argument that legacy preference helps keep the school running is absurd.
Similarly, other elite schools are well on their way to creating self-sustaining endowments of their own. Last year, Forbes reported Harvard’s endowment at $53.2 billion, Yale’s at $42.3 billion, and the University of Pennsylvania’s at $20.5 billion. Stanford reports its endowment at $36.3 billion.
With economies comparable to that of some small countries, these schools do not need to rely on donations from legacy students and their families. The desire for donations cannot excuse favoritism of rich families.
In a stressful and competitive admissions system, we can’t blame students for using legacy. However, students ought to also acknowledge that legacy is a matter of luck, providing advantages to people who are already advantaged. Legacy preference only exacerbates inequality. By rewarding privileged students for their family connections, colleges preserve an undemocratic cycle of generational elites.