Major Universities Ending Legacy Admissions

21 January 2020

Imagine that you work in a university admissions office. You see the applications of two students who have the same test scores. One would be the first in her family to attend college. The other is the child of a graduate of the same university. If you follow your school's traditional policy, you must admit the child of the previous graduate.

Until recently, many of the top private U.S. universities were more likely to admit the child of a graduate of that university than a student with a similar educational record.

Is it fair?

These legacy admissions have been questioned by educators and most admissions officers say they are not fair.

In this October 19, 2011 photo, Christopher Smith, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, looks at stem cell samples through an inverted microscope in a laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University medical campus in Baltimore, Maryland.
In this October 19, 2011 photo, Christopher Smith, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, looks at stem cell samples through an inverted microscope in a laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University medical campus in Baltimore, Maryland.

John Hopkins University is considered one of the top universities in the United States. In a speech early this month, President Ronald J. Daniels said the children of Hopkins graduates already have many social and educational advantages. He added that it is hard to understand why legacy admissions still exist in a country that values merit and equal opportunity. For that reason, Hopkins has ended the practice in recent years.

Among the world's top universities, five say they will not consider the family's history with the school in admission. The schools include MIT, Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge and the University of California, Berkeley.

Reasons for legacy admissions

In the 2018 survey of American college admissions officers, Inside Higher Ed says 42 percent of admissions officers at private schools said that legacy is still a factor in admissions decisions. The numbers are much lower at 6 percent for public colleges.

Colleges that allow legacy admissions say that they are able to raise more money if they favor children of alumni. The money, in turn, helps other students with financial needs. They also note that students of college-educated parents are more likely to try for and complete an undergraduate degree than students whose parents did not attend college.

Origin of legacy admissions

Deborah Coe and James Davidson of Purdue University studied the origins of legacy admission. They say it began in the 1920s as a way to keep Jewish, nonwhite and immigrant students from attending the university. The result was a mostly white, Christian student body.

In modern times, affirmative action by American universities is part of an effort to create a more diverse community on campus. Affirmative action considers the race of an applicant along with other qualities like economic status.

Diversity or legacy

In 2014, a special-interest group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought legal action against Harvard University. The group argued that Harvard held Asian Americans to a higher standard in admissions. The group said the Ivy League school gave preference to black and Hispanic students with lower grades.

During a court hearing, a Harvard University's dean said it was important for Harvard to favor the children of alumni in order to bring students who "have more experience with Harvard" together with "others who are less familiar with Harvard." Putting these different group of students together, he added, would make "them more effective students and citizen leaders for society."

A federal judge ruled in 2019 that the school's admission policy does not discriminate against Asian-American students. And the SFFA is appealing the decision.

A diverse, well-qualified student body

At Johns Hopkins University, officials reported that removing their legacy admissions has resulted in a diverse student body with high academic abilities. In the past, there were more students with family ties to the university than those who needed federal financial aid. Now, there are more students who need financial aid than those with family connections

A recent gift to Johns Hopkins allows the school to admit students no matter how much money they can pay. Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced in November that he is giving a record $1.8 billion to the university. It is thought to be the largest private donation ever given a university. Bloomberg graduated from Hopkins in 1964. He said his gift was meant to support student financial aid at the school and make its admissions process "forever need-blind."

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

legacy – n. something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past

alumnin. someone who was a student at a particular school, college, or university

originn. the point or place where something begins or is created

affirmative action n. the practice of improving the educational and job opportunities of members of groups that have not been treated fairly in the past because of their race, sex, etc.

effectiveadj. producing a result that is wanted

diverseadj. made up of people or things that are different from each other

need-blindadj. without consideration for the need of an applicant

What do you think of legacy admissions? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.