Why Legacy Admissions Make Sense for Elite Universities

by David French

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today on a interesting new study of the extent of legacy admissions at highly selective universities. Legacy apparently matters more than we thought, granting a whopping 45 percent advantage to “primary legacies” (students whose parents were undergraduates at the school). But — and this was fascinating (at least to me) — the legacy advantage seems to be greater at higher SAT-score ranges.  In other words, the better the student, the greater the legacy advantage.

At one level, this seems counterintuitive. Do top students need legacy nudges? (Apparently, at highly selective universities, every applicant could use a nudge.) But when you look at legacy from an institutional perspective — examining the institution’s self-interest — legacy advantages for top performers represent a blindingly obvious beneficial policy. Selective universities take the long view. Most have been around for two centuries (or more) and wish to maintain their reputation and financial advantage for another two centuries. What better way than by instituting powerful “brand loyalty” amongst the perceived best and brightest minds in the country?  

After all, no one’s going to criticize you for admitting a student with a 1500 SAT, and when choosing among students with such scores, why not prefer the son or daughter of a graduate? You maximize the chances of future donations, create inter-generational bonds, and prevent divided loyalties.  

The core argument against legacy admissions relies on a sense of profound unfairness, the idea that less-qualified students gain lifelong advantages because of the sheer accident of their birth while perhaps harder-working, smarter students are sent to toil in the (perceived) academic wasteland of the land-grant college. While this does happen on occasion (very large donors can get very special advantages for their children), the ordinary reality of legacy seems much more benign. Kids with high SAT scores will ultimately have a variety of good choices; it just looks like they can be fairly certain that one of those choices will be their father’s or mother’s alma mater.