Yale Daily News

Renewed debate about the role of legacy preference in the college admissions process has sparked conversation on Yale’s campus this fall, revealing a divide between student policymakers and admissions leaders over whether legacy status should be considered in the College’s highly-competitive admissions process. 

A resolution passed Oct. 17 by the Yale College Council Senate condemned the “use of legacy preference” in Yale’s undergraduate admissions process, calling on the College to stop considering legacy status in its admissions deliberations. Three days later, Amherst College did just that, joining a small but growing consortium of elite institutions that have in recent months ended the practice of legacy preference. Still, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan defended the practice in an interview with the News. 

“The policy surrounding legacy is something that’s considered frequently,” Quinlan said. “I’m comfortable with our current policy of adding a plus factor to sons or daughters of Yale alumni.”

In a follow-up statement to the News, Quinlan emphasized that legacy status is never the sole deciding factor in an admissions decision. He also said that legacy students are overall academically higher-performing than other students both in high school and at Yale and that legacy students contribute to student body diversity. 

“It is a common misconception that legacy students have lower academic credentials than the overall student body,” Quinlan wrote. “In fact, the opposite is true.”

According to Quinlan, legacy students — who comprise about 12 percent of the undergraduate student body — earned higher grade point averages and standardized test scores in high school than the overall student body. 

But some students feel that such metrics compound inequities in the admissions process.

“I think that’s actually a perfect case for why we need to do away with legacy preference,” said Logan Roberts ’23, YCC financial accessibility policy director. “These are students already coming in with advantages in the admissions process and they don’t need any extra boost.”

Legacy students also “consistently” earn higher grade point averages while at Yale than the overall student body, Quinlan added. 

Still, studies have shown that academic metrics like GPA and standardized test scores favor white and wealthy students. According to the Brookings Institution, white students scored 69 points higher on the math section of the SAT than Latino students and 103 points higher than Black students. Only Asian American students outscored their white counterparts.

In an interview with the News last year, Quinlan said that the College saw more applicants from under-resourced backgrounds when it shifted to a test-optional admissions policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legacy students also contribute to the undergraduate student body’s diversity, Quinlan said. He cited the statistic that over the past four years, enrolled legacy students have hailed from more than 40 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

By contrast, some experts feel that legacy preference negatively impacts racial and socioeconomic diversity.

“I think if you look at the data, the majority of folks who come from legacy backgrounds are majority white and majority super affluent, and if you had a non-legacy applicant pool, it would be equally as diverse,” education equity activist Viet Andy Nguyen told the News.

The YCC’s resolution was the product of conversations between student organizations and national advocacy groups, according to Roberts. Roberts — who also serves as the president of the Yale First-Generation and/or Low-Income Advocacy Movement, or YFAM — said that the YCC began drafting the resolution over the summer in collaboration with YFAM. 

The first attempt to pass the resolution failed, Roberts said, because the YCC Senate was unable to reach a quorum. The resolution passed on its second attempt, with the vast majority of senators voting for its approval, according to Roberts. 

“Elite schools began to employ legacy preference in the early twentieth century as a direct result of [anti-immigrant] and [antisemitic] discriminatory impulses,” the resolution asserted. “Today, the practice of legacy admissions continues to reinforce class inequity, hamper economic mobility and reproduce cycles of privilege.”

According to The New York Times, the University’s admissions process discriminated against Jewish applicants until the 1960s, capping enrollment of Jewish students at 10 percent. Schools like Yale allegedly used these policies to exclude certain demographics.

Senator Viktor Kagan ’24 said that he supports ending legacy preference, especially as the son of two immigrants to the United States.

“My family just did not come from a place where I could be warranted the privilege of being a legacy admit and get any sort of help to get into this school,” Kagan said. “There’s so many people that have fought their way to get here.”

Kagan stressed that he believes all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, belong at Yale and that his goal in supporting ending legacy preference is to “foster a process that ensures all students feel they belong.” 

In his statement, Quinlan said that legacy applicants have not been a barrier to Yale’s expansion of  “access, excellence and diversity.” He pointed to increased enrollment rates among first-generation students, students from historically underrepresented groups and students eligible for federal Pell Grants, also citing the statistic that in each of the past eight incoming first-year classes, first-generation students have outnumbered legacy students. 

Quinlan asserted that legacy students are subject to the same “highly-selective” criteria as any other Yale applicant and that legacy status alone never determines an individual’s admission. He emphasized that there is not a separate admissions process for legacy students.

Student leaders said that the issue at hand does not concern legacy students’ qualifications.

“The resolution is not about whether legacy students deserve their spots at Yale,” Roberts said. “Legacy students who are here belong and they deserve to be a part of our community. We just want to make sure that everyone has an equal shot in the admissions process.”

The YCC in its resolution cited research proving a lack of evidence for a statistically significant relationship between legacy preference policies and alumni donations. Such research refutes the common argument that legacy preference policies encourage wealthy alumni to contribute large sums of money, and that ending the practice would correlate to decreased donations.

For Marc Bertoni ’23, a former YTV staffer, the notion of ending legacy admissions forced him to do some “soul-searching.” Both of Bertoni’s parents graduated from Yale in 1990.

“I support the YCC’s resolution and think that it is important for Yale’s future to move away from this tradition,” Bertoni said. “I do recognize though that I am saying this from a point of privilege. However, it’s for the best. I think that everyone applying to school should be on equal ground, and the traits that they’ve developed, not ones passed down by their parents, should be the deciding factor on whether they get accepted to a school.”

According to Quinlan, the admissions committee is “affirmative” towards students from a host of backgrounds considered “priorities” for the College. In addition to legacy status, Quinlan stated, these priorities include, but are not limited to, first-generation students, students with “exceptional” artistic talent and students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The YCC’s resolution encouraged student government bodies at other colleges and universities to support the initiative. 

A handful of peer institutions have either eliminated the consideration of legacy status in their admissions process or never employed the practice, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University. Across the Atlantic, both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford do not use legacy preference.

In May, the Democratic governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, signed into law the nation’s first ban of the practice.

Amherst College cast a national spotlight on the issue several weeks ago with the announcement of its decision to do away with legacy admissions. Roberts said that the Oct. 20 announcement “speaks to the fact that this is a growing movement.” The editorial board of the Boston Globe on Oct. 31 penned an op-ed supporting Amherst’s move.

“Schools are going to do it, and it’s a matter of when, not if,” Nguyen said. 

Nguyen — who served as Brown University’s student body president as an undergraduate — is the executive director of EdMobilizer, an organization that works with higher education institutions and think tanks to identify and remedy inequitable policies. 

Nguyen leads the #LeaveYourLegacy initiative, a campaign encouraging college alumni to withhold donations until their institutions end legacy preference.

Sources within Yale agreed with Nguyen’s assessment. An alumnus with children in the College, who is also a Yale professor, weighed in on the issue. They forecast that the College will ultimately do away with legacy preference, spurred in part by the YCC’s resolution and recent endowment returns and in part by the example of peer institutions.

“My prediction is that this is the future,” they said. “Where Amherst goes Williams will follow, and where Williams goes, Dartmouth will follow, and now we’re in the Ivy League.”

Quinlan said in an interview with the News that the University is “constantly reevaluating [its] institutional policies.”

But not all alumni are in favor of ending legacy preference in admissions. Andrew Lipka ’78, an alum who petitioned to be placed on the ballot for the 2022 Yale Corporation Alumni Fellow Election, supports legacy preference. According to Lipka, legacy students are academically qualified, contribute to the diversity of the institution, help preserve Yale traditions and show alumni that they are valued by the University.

“We do not need a guarantee that our children and grandchildren will be admitted,” Lipka said. “But alumni preference even as a tie-breaker should be kept because alumni keep Yale going in ineffable and vital ways. Yale dismisses us at its peril.”

Lipka said he is “for equity,” but that Yale can value both equity and alumni. He likened legacy to other non-academic factors that the University uses to differentiate its massive pool of applicants, such as playing an instrument or participating in athletics.

The Yale professor took the question of student-athletes to its opposite end, arguing that if Yale is to commit to meritocracy and abolish legacy preference, it should also re-examine athletic recruitment.

“I think that in 20 years, people will look back on legacy admissions and wonder, ‘What was going on?’” Nguyen said. “How was this a system that was not only allowed to happen, but that was actively defended?”

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions is located at 38 Hillhouse Ave.

Correction, Nov. 4: An earlier version of this article that drew information from the Yale College Council’s Oct. 17 resolution did not distinguish between institutions that have abolished legacy preference policies and institutions that did not employ the practice to begin with. In fact, while Johns Hopkins University recently eliminated the policy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford have not historically been known to use legacy preference. The article has been updated with clarifying language.

Correction, Nov. 5: A sentence of this article misspelled Nguyen’s name. It has been updated.

Correction, Nov. 10This article has been updated to better reflect the results of the Brookings study.

Jordan Fitzgerald serves as a University editor for the News. She previously edited for WKND and wrote about admissions, financial aid & alumni. She is a senior in Trumbull College majoring in American history.
Olivia Tucker covered student policy & affairs as a beat reporter in 2021-22. She previously served as an associate editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine and covered gender equity and diversity. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a senior in Davenport College majoring in English.