STERN: End legacy now

A Stern Perspective

At the end of this academic year, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel will return to the classroom. Brenzel’s tenure has been marked by a number of successes, including an effort to yield more applicants interested in science and engineering and more effective international recruitment. But as we usher in a new face to guide the office of admissions, it is time to institute a new era of admissions practices. It is time to rid our Admissions Office of a policy conceived in elitism, dedicated to the proposition that not all applicants are created equal. I speak, of course, of legacy preference.

It is a widely known fact that, at most selective colleges like Yale, applicants whose parents or other family members attended the school get some advantage when applying to that same school. There are numerous reasons given for this policy: legacy applicants are continuing a loyal family tradition; legacy preference is an effective tie-breaker in admissions; because the school knows their parents, it knows that the student comes from an intellectually rich background that has prepared them well; legacy preference ensures that a school will remain closely connected with its alumni, who may reciprocate generously.

Giving preference to legacy applicants has its roots in the unsavory policy of trying to propagate a white educational elite. According to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and editor of a recent book on legacy preference, “legacy preferences began after World War I, part of an effort to curtail the enrollment of immigrant students, particularly Jews, at Ivy League colleges.” According to Kahlenberg, “minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective colleges and universities but only 6.7 percent of the legacy-applicant pool.”

Having alumni family members is not an insignificant advantage: According to Dean Brenzel, Yale treats “legacy status as a positive factor in the evaluation process, and in recent years legacies have been admitted at about three times the rate of non-legacies.”

“However,” Brenzel cautions, “the degree of advantage does not correspond to the difference in admit rates, because legacy applicants on average present academic qualifications substantially stronger than non-legacy applicants. In other words, the average legacy applicant is more competitive in the process, even without any regard paid to legacy status.”

To me, the question that immediately jumps out is: If the children of alumni are, on average, more qualified to begin with, why do they need any extra boost? If they begin the process already “more competitive,” then many legacy applicants should win admission even without preferred status.

The least cited, though perhaps most important, argument in favor of legacy preference is that it keeps the alma mater on the minds of the alumni. It is no secret that this close connection often entails significant donations on the part of pleased alums. Accepting the children of alumni at higher rates might be seen as an unspoken quid pro quo — we’ll take your kids, you’ll buy us a new library. To some, this trade-off is acceptable, because all students benefit from the resources that can be secured through generous alumni donations.

But there is something about legacy preference that seems inherently unfair, which, according to Kahlenberg, is probably one reason why 75 percent of Americans oppose it.

Legacy status is giving an advantage to those who are already advantaged enough. Yes, exceptions abound, but it is not an unfair generalization to claim that children of those who attended elite colleges are likely to have advantages distinct from those whose parents were not quite so lucky. Coming from a home that, on average, is wealthier and emphasizes education cannot be underestimated. The single greatest correlating factor in whether you will attend college is whether your parent attended college.

Now for the record, I was possibly the beneficiary of legacy status. My mother attended Yale Law School. While I am not sure how much, if at all, this aided my application, it is possible that this connection tilted the scales in my favor. If this is the case, I am eternally grateful. However, like Clarence Thomas acknowledging his debt to affirmative action yet abhorring it nonetheless, I cannot change my stance on legacy preference. It is unjust — benefiting those who don’t need it in a craven attempt to secure donations.

Scott Stern is a sophomore in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at .


  • The Anti-Yale

    My Principal’s daughter became a Vegan without studying nutritional requirements and wound up with scurvy when she was my student in 11th grade.

    Moral of the story ……..?

    • The Anti-Yale

      Moral: Look before you leap.

    • CrazyBus

      Moral: Don’t be a vegan

      • The Anti-Yale

        Lineage. Blue blood can be bought with green cash.

  • SY

    Build the new colleges. That allows 10-15% legacies. Favoring 150 usually qualified applicants whose parents attended/endowed Yale makes sense. A century ago almost every Yalie was a legacy or wealthy. Look how far we have come.

  • CrazyBus

    If you had to help a family member or a stranger, who would you choose?
    Legacy is helping a cousin who you’ve never met, while non-legacy is the random acquaintance or stranger. You’ll help both, but when push comes to shove, family probably will win out.

    I was not a legacy admit, and I see how it is unfair. But I also understand the sentiment.

    • inycepoo

      This logic works on the personal level, where the sample size of the people you’ll help is rather small (in comparison to admissions sizes, that is), and so familial ties and such have more of an effect on decisions. On the larger scale of things, it’s illogical and unfair.

      • CrazyBus

        Based on this article, the author does not debunk the statement that legacy is factored into tie-breaks, which even on the larger scale, that makes sense.

        Familial ties are just an example. I don’t know about you, but I would rather help a friend of a friend (or even a friend of a friend of a friend) than a stranger.

        The fact of the matter is, colleges build communities; we don’t drift through college unattached. There is sentiment and emotional attachments, and that is why I can understand why the system exists. The same thing is true for hiring practices at companies–a referral from within is often given heavier consideration than arbitrary applicants, all other things held equal. Because you trust one more than the other based on emotional (i.e. not entirely rational) factors. If anything, it’s a flaw of human nature, and hence, anything touched by human hands can reasonably be affected.

  • FreddyHoneychurch

    So, if a Yale legacy applies to YHP and only gets into HP, a Princeton legacy does the same but only gets into YH, and a Harvard legacy ditto but is only accepted to YP, well, that would be silly.

    Most Yale legacies would have been accepted to one Ivy or another on their own merit, right? insofar as this is the case, the legacy policy would seem to make plenty of sense.

  • inycepoo

    Author parallels himself and Clarence Thomas. Good choice, Stern.

  • Branford73

    I was part of the wave of public school kids admitted beginning in the 60’s. Then director Inslee Clark received the brunt of the credit or blame, depending on how one looked at it. I have no problem with legacy advantage as long as the legacy admits are qualified. When one of my kids toured Yale and listened to the admissions office we heard the director say that outside of the obvious admits, large numbers of kids are qualified for admissions. He said if all the admits were put on a trans-oceanic plane which crashed with no survivors, they could put together another entire class and no one would be able to tell the difference. My kid applied early to Duke and got in. He wanted a *real* Division I sports college as well as good academics and he figured Duke was the best combination for those in the East.

  • Dowager

    Basing admission, when all things are equal, on something arbitrary like loyalty and familial ties seems so silly in comparison to something substantial, like say, oh I don’t know….skin color?

    • Branford73

      I suspect it remains because it pays. The theory being that alums with family members who would like to attend Yale might have a slight advantage if the alums contribute more money. I suspect that by now a number of alums of color contribute for the same hope and with the same rate of realization. The development office could likely tell us, but probably won’t.

      In the 2007 YDn article linked to right of this one, it was reported,

      > Yale Dean of Admissions Jeffrey
      > Brenzel declined to comment on the
      > topic of legacy admissions
      > specifically, but said in an e-mail
      > that the qualifications of legacy
      > applicants on average exceed those of
      > the class as a whole, and that legacy
      > students at Yale tend to outperform
      > non-legacy peers who enter Yale with
      > equivalent grades and test scores.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I suggest a blood test : Blue– Yes; Red—Maybe.

  • ACommenter

    Why is pursuing alumni donations craven? Alumni donations pay for an awful lot of nice things for Yalies – legacy or otherwise. The column author dismisses that argument on the grounds that it nonetheless “seems inherently unfair,” which isn’t actually an objection on the merits at all.

    Legacies are better prepared on average, so it’s not at the expense of the academic caliber of the entering class that they’re admitted. Of all of the laundry list of factors that applicants get an “extra boost” for, why go after the one describing a subgroup that outperforms the applicant pool, outperforms the matriculating student body, and donates more to the school?

    • PioneerLS15

      I don’t think it’s that it seems unfair; it’s that it is unfair–or, as the author put it “It is unjust…”

      The problem with this argument is that legacy applicants don’t need the extra boost, and it’s more impressive to be a similarly credentialed applicant who didn’t come from so cushy a background. Money shouldn’t matter, or why can’t rich people just openly buy their way in? I’ll give you $10 million, you accept my kid.

  • The Anti-Yale

    So the kids of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would be turned down in favor of the kids of George Bush?

    Makes cents..

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