ANALYSIS: The legacy of affirmative action
Data from a National Bureau of Economic Research paper confirm theories that maintaining legacy preference in admissions processes hurts racial diversity, while both legacy preference and race-conscious admissions significantly benefit wealthy applicants over their lower-class peers.
Madelyn Kumar, Senior Photographer
When colleges across the United States began considering race as a factor in the admissions process during the late 1960s, scores of students of color arrived at the country’s most elite campuses. With these race-conscious admissions policies, universities aimed to accept more students from groups that had historically been excluded from institutions of higher education — particularly selective ones.
Now, many of their children are applying for acceptance to the same universities.
With the Supreme Court slated to rule on the future of affirmative action this spring, what role does preference for legacy students — that is, applicants with one or more parents who graduated from a certain university — play in the diversity debate?
Affirmative action and legacy admissions
Parents of students entering universities today likely graduated between the years of 1980 and 2000. The average percentage of students of color at Ivy League universities increased from 15.8 percent to 34.2 percent during that time. During this time at Yale, the proportion of students of color increased from 16.9 to 31.3 percent.
The uptick in students from racially diverse backgrounds at selective universities has largely been attributed to affirmative action, which has long been controversial. Recently, such policies have again come under intensified public scrutiny, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases challenging the practice this past October.
The suits, both brought forth by the nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions, accuse University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill of discriminating against white and Asian applicants and Harvard University of discriminating against Asian applicants. Should the Court decide to strike down affirmative action, it could become illegal for universities across the United States to consider race in the admissions process, or even to ask about racial identity at all.
The threat of eliminating race-conscious admissions has sparked protests and debate about its value in preserving and fostering diversity on college campuses across the nation. Concurrently, legacy admissions –– or, as New York Times columnist John McWhorter called it, “affirmative action for white kids” –– have come under fire, with more and more people, including the Yale College Council, calling for its removal. The main criticism has centered on how legacy admissions advantage wealthy, white students. Meanwhile, universities like Yale and Harvard remain steadfast in upholding and defending it.
Legacy admissions give preference to the children of alumni in the admissions process. Despite attempts to eliminate the policy in Connecticut and some universities — such as Texas A&M, Purdue, the California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, and Amherst — eliminating it altogether, other elite universities continue to accept a high number of legacy admits. In the Yale College class of 2023, 12 percent of students were legacy affiliated, as were 8 percent in the class of 2024, 14 percent in the class of 2025 and 12 percent in the class of 2026.
Many of the same activists fighting for the preservation of affirmative action have advocated for the removal of the legacy policy, viewing the two policies as contradictory. SFFA, the group currently suing the schools in an effort to take down affirmative action, has also publicly come out in opposition of legacy admissions — reflecting strong anti-legacy preference sentiment from both sides of the affirmative action debate.
The Supreme Court of the United States currently has a conservative majority of justices who are skeptical of affirmative action. At the October hearings, the Court debated whether admissions boards have truly exhausted all other options to increase diversity without considering race, raising the question of whether schools can constitutionally consider racial identity while still employing legacy admissions.
A 2021 article in the Princeton Legal Journal explains that race-conscious policies must satisfy what is known in the law as the standard of “strict scrutiny.” Strict scrutiny demands that policies of any organization receiving government funding must meet two conditions: they must be used to further a “necessary” state interest and must also minimize “differential treatment on the basis of race.” For Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill to win their cases, they have to prove that their admissions policies meet this standard.
Richard Sander, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Harvard Crimson in October that racial preferences can only be deemed acceptable by the court if all other alternatives to achieve racial diversity have been exhausted. Sander said that affirmative action fails to reach strict scrutiny because every option to diversify the set of accepted students — such as eliminating legacy admissions — has not been exhausted.
“Suppose a university — a wealthy university — could eliminate those preferences which tend to favor the children of wealthy, white parents and achieve diversity without race consciousness: Would strict scrutiny require it to do so?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked at one of the hearings.
In essence, Gorsuch questioned whether affirmative action fulfills the strict scrutiny standard at universities that employ legacy admissions, arguing that race-conscious admissions policies do not minimize the impact of race if a school could support diversity efforts through other means — such as eliminating legacy preferences entirely. And admissions data suggest he is correct.
Admissions data at Harvard and MIT
Both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology boasted similarly selective undergraduate acceptance rates of about 3 percent for the class of 2026. MIT, which does not use legacy admissions, admitted a more racially diverse class than Harvard, where legacy preference continues to factor significantly into admissions decisions. Both schools practice affirmative action.
While Harvard does not ordinarily release comprehensive demographics data, more information has emerged through the ongoing affirmative action lawsuits. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper, released in 2019, draws from Harvard admissions data covering the classes of 2014 to 2019, who applied to Harvard between 2009 and 2015.
Specifically, Harvard considers students with at least one parent who attended the school to be legacy applicants. In its admissions records, the university groups athletes, legacies, students on the “Dean’s interest list” and children of faculty into one category — known as ALDCs — for much of their data. Recognizing that athletics constitute its own unique section in admissions, the report specifies which students are LDCs — meaning either legacy, Dean’s interest list or children of faculty — or as non-ALDC, meaning they are in none of the four special categories.
Between 2014 and 2019, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants was 33.6 percent, dwarfing the school’s overall acceptance rate of just six percent, according to data from the NBER.
Their research also separates the acceptance rate for legacy applicants across racial identities. 34 percent of white legacy applicants were admitted. The acceptance rate for Black legacies was the lowest at 28.5 percent, while Hispanics — 35.6 percent — and Asian Americans — 35.1 percent — stayed within two percentage points of the acceptance rate for white applicants.
These numbers reflect the large role legacy preference plays in admissions across all racial categories. But within the pool of all legacy applicants, the vast majority are white.
Between 2014 and 2019, 69.3 percent of Harvard’s legacy applicants were white. Despite the similar acceptance rates across racial groups of legacy students, the sheer number of white legacy applicants skews the diversity of the actual admit pool. White LDC admits in Harvard’s admissions numbered 1,362, whereas Black LDC admits numbered just 81.
Because MIT practices affirmative action but, unlike Harvard, does not employ legacy preference in admissions, admissions data from MIT offer insight into the impact of removing legacy admissions.
For the class of 2026, MIT’s overall admissions rate was 3.96 percent. Harvard’s was 3.24 percent. The schools are similarly selective. A comparison of MIT and Harvard admissions data by race show a greater percentage of students of color in the classes of 2025 and 2026 at MIT, where there is no legacy preference.
Percentages of class composition by race differ from acceptance rates, so while these figures do not confirm whether acceptance rates themselves are more favorable for students of color without legacy admissions, they do corroborate that the removal of legacy admissions helps form more racially diverse classes overall.
A matter of time?
Several alumni of color from prestigious universities — including sitting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Princeton and her J.D. from Yale Law School — have publicly defended legacy admissions. Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, questions the fairness of abolishing legacy preference now that people of color have begun benefitting from it.
In a 2013 Supreme Court hearing about affirmative action, Michigan Solicitor General Bill Schuette raised a similar opinion as Gorsuch. He testified that removing legacy preference would constitute a race-neutral step that universities could take to benefit racial minorities.
“They finally have children and you’re going [to] do away [with] that preference for them? It seems the goal posts keep changing every few years for minorities,” Sotomayor said.
Even though presently, legacy applicant pools are largely white, legacy pools could grow more diverse in 10 to 20 years due to the increasing racial diversity within current college classes — a diversity that can be partially attributed to affirmative action.
Sanford and Anastasia Williams, both of whom are Black alumni of the University of Virginia, told the New York Times that they support legacy preference playing a small role in the admissions process.
“We have tons of friends whose kids are starting school,” Sanford Williams, who is a lecturer at the University of California’s Los Angeles School of Law, told the Times. “They think, ‘Why is it every time we get a chance to do something, the rug is pulled out from under us?’”
Legacies make up 14 percent of UVA’s class of 2025. All three of the Williams kids received undergraduate degrees from the University of Virginia.
Checking the legacy box on a Yale application today means that the parents of an applicant likely graduated between 1980 and 2000, as the proportion of admitted students of color almost doubled.
By 2000, there were 3,373 “White and Unknown” students enrolled in the graduating class, which still far surpassed the 1,538 students of color.
If every student from the Yale class of 2000 had a child that applied to the University, they would likely be seeking entry to the classes of 2027-2034, based on current predicted ages of parenthood. That means, looking just at the class of 2000 as an example, there would still be over 1,800 more white students than students of color that could check the legacy box in their application over the course of about the next eight application cycles.
Race is not the whole story
Whether applicants are white or not, admissions data reveal that legacy status follows higher socioeconomic status. At Harvard, per the NBER study, over half of non-ALDC admitted students within each racially marginalized category — Asian American, Black and Hispanic — received financial aid. However, over half of admitted students of color who were LDCs did not need financial aid, showing that the legacy pool trended wealthier even among non-white admits.
This means that legacy admissions support a minority of minorities, providing financially-privileged racially diverse legacies a leg up in admissions.
The situation has not changed significantly since the 2019 NBER study. In a survey of the Harvard College class of 2025, which polled 78 percent of the undergraduate class, The Harvard Crimson found that legacies reported higher incomes than other students, with 30.9 percent reporting a combined family income of more than $500,000.
“The college admissions process [at present] doesn’t fully allow for the nuances within racial categories and instead generalizes the different experiences of students of color,” said Alvaro Perpuly ’23. “These continue to affect multiple underrepresented racial and ethnic categories, especially when discussing different levels of wealth and challenges each community may face within each defined category.”
Like Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 — another sitting Supreme Court justice of color — graduated from Yale Law School. While Sotomayor is a vocal defender of race-conscious admissions, Thomas takes the opposite view. He considers affirmative action a form of “benign discrimination.”
Meanwhile, students like Isaac Yu ’24 — who was formerly a managing editor for the News — see affirmative action as an important tool for promoting racial diversity in higher education, but they also do not necessarily think race-conscious admissions are enough. A student’s racial identity may shape part of their story, but it does not necessarily determine all of it.
Yu, who is low-income and Asian American, is the first in his family to go to college. He does not believe affirmative action alone accomplishes its goal of diversifying classrooms.
Yu said that considering race alone cannot promote true diversity of experience. As an example, he noted that a person of color could be a legacy student that had gone to the same schools with the same resources and opportunities as other wealthy — albeit often white — admits.
“I’m bringing my experience growing up in suburban Dallas, going to a Title I high school,” Yu said. “And that is the ‘diverse experience’ that I bring that most people in the room [at Yale] have not encountered.”
The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the fate of affirmative action in two separate rulings this spring.