Children of alumni who gain a boost in college admissions due to their legacy status are more likely to suffer academically than minority students or athletes who also receive an admissions edge, according to a new study by two Princeton University researchers.
The more a college lowers its admissions standards to admit a legacy student, the worse that student is likely to perform once he or she is enrolled and the likelier it is that the student will drop out of school, according to the report, which is published in the current issue of the journal Social Problems. But admissions officers and college admissions experts said that on the whole, colleges do not admit students who they believe are not capable of handling the academic work, especially at schools with admissions processes as competitive as Yale’s.
The study was based on a sample of freshmen at 28 selective colleges, including Yale. It indicates that in 1999, legacy students got a boost equivalent to 47 SAT points, while athletes and minority students enjoyed a benefit equivalent to about 108 SAT points. But athletes or minority students who were admitted at such schools did not appear to suffer academically or drop out at a higher rate than the average student, according to the research, which was conducted by Douglas Massey, a Princeton sociology professor, and Margarita Mooney, a postdoctoral fellow.
“Affirmative action programs thus do not appear to set up either minorities or athletes for academic failure by dumping them unprepared into a very competitive academic environment,” Massey and Mooney wrote. “Ironically, the only evidence we find of a skills mismatch is for the children of alumni.”
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.
Despite the study’s findings, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he does not believe Yale’s legacy population struggles academically in comparison with the rest of the student body.
“I am concerned that general trends combined across many universities may not represent the situation at Yale,” he said. “In my experience, Yale legacies as a group do not seem to face academic difficulties in numbers greater than the general Yale undergraduate population.”
Legacy students said because of Yale’s large applicant pool and fierce competition for admission, legacy status is hardly a guarantee of acceptance, so legacy students who are admitted are just as qualified as the next Eli — and hardly more likely to flunk out.
“Here it doesn’t really make an awful lot of difference because people can’t pull strings, and believe me, I tried to pull them,” said one legacy student, who asked to remain anonymous because he has a parent on the Yale faculty. “You can’t really get in here … unless you really have some very serious things going for you. People who are here are probably legacies by coincidence and not by nepotism.”
About 15 percent of the class of 2010 had parents or grandparents who attended Yale College or one of Yale’s graduate or professional schools, according to University statistics. In 2004, when statistics were most recently available, the Yale accepted 30 percent of legacy applicants, roughly three times the acceptance rate for non-legacy applicants.
“Because we value the loyalty and involvement of our alumni, legacy status is given positive weight in the college admissions decision,” Yale President Richard Levin explained in 2004.
Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the study’s results were not surprising. Schools that lower their standards to admit legacy students do so knowing that they will admitting students who are not likely to be at the top of their college class academically, he said. He said the role of legacy admissions in fostering loyal alumni — even though most never end up having a son or daughter attend their college — can make it worthwhile for some schools to lower their academic standard for some legacy students.
But Deb Schmidt, a consultant at Virginia-based AdmissionsConsultants, Inc. and a former admissions officer at Carleton College and Cornell University, said unqualified students cannot expect to be admitted to their mother or father’s alma mater, because competitive colleges are unlikely to give a coveted spot to someone who would not be able to succeed at that school.
“It’s less difficult to tell a highly-committed, maybe wealthy alum that their son or daughter wasn’t admitted in a pool of 17,000 applicants than it is a year or two later to say, ‘Your son or daughter has flunked out,’ because that reflects personally on the student,” she said.
Overall, the study concluded that affirmative action for athletes, minorities, and legacies has a “relatively minor” effect on academic success compared to socioeconomic status and academic preparation, which have much more of an impact on students’ prospects for faring well in college.