Updated: Apr 26
Legacy preference continues to be a hot-button issue for applicants to highly selective colleges and universities. Whether the consideration of legacy status in the admissions process is encouraging or discouraging to the applicant, it is increasingly coming under scrutiny.
However, despite concerns of nepotism, most colleges do consider an applicant’s legacy status in the admissions process and when making final admission decisions.
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Alumni are important in maintaining or increasing the institution’s financial well-being, given that alumni are the most common donors to their alma mater. Operating budgets rely more heavily on endowments and annual gifts than on tuition. Alumni sustain these endowments through their charitable gifts and contribute to annual funds, which funnel funds to financial aid and other institutional priorities that affect students.
As a result of this kind of long-time built structure and the relationship between institutions of higher education and their graduates, it is easy to understand why alumni, their connection, and their “feelings” remain a component in admissions decisions.
In direct opposition to the notion that college admissions are rooted in meritocracy, legacy college admissions challenge current expectations of admissions objectivity. Hence, the bottom line is clear; there is still a marked advantage for applicants with legacy at an institution if the institution employs legacy status as part of their process.
How Much Does Legacy Help in College Admissions?
Applicants will indicate their legacy status on their application in the family information section in response to questions about parental educational level, college(s) attended, and degree(s) earned.
When an applicant indicates that a parent or both parents attended the institution to which they are applying, their application is then forwarded to and reviewed by the college’s alumni association or alumni affairs department to validate the responses and flag the applicant as a legacy.
This is such an involved and important process at colleges that there is usually a designated representative or liaison from the admissions office to the alumni association or alumni affairs office who serves as a resource for colleagues as well as applicants and their families.
Not All Legacy Applications Are The Same
However, not all legacy applicants are the same or equal and are often categorized at different levels and types. Primary legacy applicants are those whose parent attended and graduated from the college as an undergraduate. Some schools may also count simply attending, but not graduating, as a legacy.
This kind of consideration applies to first-generation applicants as well; a parent who attended college, no matter for how long, disqualifies an applicant as the first-generation, for example. Next are the legacy applicants whose parents attended and graduated from a graduate school. Some schools may count attending and graduating from a graduate school as primary, but this is uncommon.
Also, in the secondary legacy category are those whose grandparents, aunt, uncle, or sibling attended as an undergraduate. Legacy preference in this circumstance is on primary relationships and not extended family or others unless there has been a significant affiliation regarding volunteering, service on boards, or endowment and annual fund giving.
Moreover, primary legacy applicants are not all considered in the same category or level regarding the depth of the relationship to the school. This is important; most schools will use a rating system, provided by the alumni association or alumni affairs, to indicate the depth of the alumni connection.
Examples include the family member who graduated but did not donate to the school nor volunteer; graduated and volunteered/s occasionally; graduated and volunteers consistently; graduated and gives to the annual fund; graduated and volunteers consistently, gives to the annual fund, and established an endowment, and so on.
The more involved with time or legacy giving an applicant’s family member is, the greater consideration given. This is where the nuances of how much legacy status help in college admissions can be confusing or frustrating.
That said, legacy applicants are expected to achieve in academics (rigorous courses, high GPA), receive solid standardized testing performance results, have deep and meaningful extracurricular involvement, and seek a range of intellectually-based experiences, as are all admissible applicants. Being a legacy applicant is not a ticket into any institution.
Legacy applicant preference in the admission process does not mean the overall bar is lowered, but that if, for example, all things are equal, the applicant with legacy status at any level may be given preference.
Because of this preference given in the admissions process, schools like to see that legacy applicants are excited to attend, and they are highly encouraged to apply through the school’s early admission program (early decision, restricted early action, or early action) if offered, to demonstrate their sincere interest and desire to attend.
Learn more about: Early Decision, Restricted Early Action, and Early Action
There is a higher likelihood of legacy preference in the early round due to the more binding nature of those programs. In contrast, the regular decision round provides much more room for uncertainty regarding their enrollment. Schools do not want to spend time interviewing applicants who are not likely to attend.
It is important to underscore that being a legacy applicant will not guarantee admission. While there is a nod toward applicants with legacy status, it is a layered and nuanced process to determine the level of preference given, and it is not the sole determining factor for admission.
Legacy College Admissions Statistics
Legacy college admissions are still very much in play, albeit perhaps on the decline as using legacy status to determine admittance comes under fire, especially due to recent admissions scandals.
As reported in The New York Times, a sweeping college admissions scandal in 2019 involved bribery and cheating by parents to get their children admitted to top-tier schools. This situation was merely a recent example, and as some have pointed out, wealthy parents use other avenues to gain an advantage in the admissions process, such as legacy status.
A 2018 survey of 499 college admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that 42% of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said that legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions.
This is a notable statistic for those interested in applying to a private institution; if a parent attended a private college or university, the likelihood their child will receive legacy preference at their alma mater is likely.
Also, it was noted recently in The Harvard Crimson that Harvard’s Class of 2022 is composed of over 36% legacy students; this is a huge number considering the intense competition for admission to the institution.
Scrutiny is also increasing for Ivy League schools and similar institutions with legacy admissions.
There are plenty of claims that the legacy preference in college admissions is outdated and serves an overwhelmingly white and wealthy population, as noted by The Wall Street Journal. The legacy preference stands in the way of efforts to increase diversity across all fronts.
The dilemma of how colleges and universities truly want to build their classes while balancing the financial needs of the institution (and continuing to cater to a base that provides a great deal of funding) calls into question the path of these institutions moving forward with legacy admissions.
An applicant’s legacy admissions status does offer a boost in the admission process. Some schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, have completely done away with legacy preference.
In addition, public schools are less likely to employ legacy preference than are private institutions. Although the process of factoring in legacy preference and the process of college admissions, in general, is evolving, applicants, legacy or not, should continue to put their best foot forward, pursue a challenging curriculum and aim to earn high marks, get involved in interesting extracurriculars, seek intellectually engaging activities, and prepare a strong college application.