Legacy affects odds of college acceptance

Haley Bayne and Sarah Cardwell-Smith

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Students have a 45 percent greater chance of getting into colleges from which their parents graduated than their non-legacy counterparts. At least, that is what a study of 30 “highly selective colleges” conducted in 2011 by a researcher at Harvard University found.

Those familiar with legacy, both at the high school and in the surrounding community, differ in how much they believe it affects one’s application, and whether or not the practice is fair.

Does it count?

Legacy can have a positive but limited effect on a student’s chance of being accepted to a college, Guidance Coordinator Lenny Libenzon said.

“It gives an additional boost to the application but only if the child is within the target area for the college,” Libenzon said. “So, if they have the grades that are good enough, SAT scores that are good enough, recommendations that are good enough, and activities, then the legacy will give them an additional boost.”

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While the degree to which legacy leads to a student’s acceptance to a particular school may vary, Colin Riley, the executive director of media relations at Boston University, believes that legacy is a more significant factor for students seeking admission to small, selective colleges than for those applying to larger universities, such as BU.

“This notion that being related to somebody gives you a leg up is really an Ivy League concept,” Riley said. “It really emanates from the highly selective schools.”

According to research conducted by Business Insider, about 30 percent of Harvard’s legacy applicants for the Class of 2015 were accepted, while the overall acceptance rate for applicants that year was about 5.8 percent. Similarly, 33 percent of legacy applicants were accepted to Princeton’s Class of 2015, whereas only 8.5 percent of applicants were accepted overall.

However, according to guidance counselor Nicole Bent, other factors such as athletics can play a more significant role in the admissions process than legacy.

“If you’re a premiere athlete, I find that that has more shocking admission results compared to legacy,” Bent said.

How do colleges benefit?

Colleges like to build cohorts of people from the same families because they are more likely to donate and be engaged with the schools, Libenzon said.

Unlike public universities, private universities do not receive government funding. As a result, these institutions rely heavily on private donations. According to Libenzon, most of these donations come from the school’s alumni.

While many assume that families with legacies at a certain university are more likely to donate money to the school, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the New York-based research institute The Century Foundation, said that this might not actually be the case. While conducting research for a book, he found the existence of legacy preferences does not, in fact, increase alumni giving.

Schools’ hopes for future alumni donations are just part of why universities value legacy students. Riley said that school spirit is a major reason for admissions officers’ interest in recruiting legacy students.

“One of the things you hope to instill and have on campus is school pride,” Riley said. “It’s something that may be realized more frequently and quickly with legacy applicants because they’re proud that they’re attending the school their mom or dad did.”

Another reason admissions officers might be more likely to accept legacy students is that colleges want to have a high “yield,” or percentage of accepted students who decide to attend their school, Bent said. College rankings are often based partly on yield. For this reason, many schools aim to accept students who are more likely to accept the offer of admission, according to Bent. Bent said she believes that legacy students are more likely to accept offers of admissions from schools that their family members have attended.

Is a legacy advantage fair?

Kahlenberg said he believes it is not fair to give preference to students who already have advantages.

“I think it is fundamentally un-American to provide aristocratic-type preferences based on the actions of a student’s parents,” he said.

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Kahlenberg said opponents of legacy preferences plan to bring federal litigation to challenge the legality of the system.

Others, however, are more accepting despite the problems they see with the practice.

Polly Ribatt, mother of sophomore Emily Ribbatt and a Massachusetts representative of Haverford College, said that while she is aware of the argument that prioritizing admission based on legacy could be unfair, colleges also often prioritize acceptance to students from remote states or first-generation applicants.

“You don’t want to have only legacy people getting into colleges,” Ribatt said. “Students who apply whose parents had never been to college get considered a little bit differently to try to make the college entry system a little more fair.”

Assistant Headmaster Hal Mason said he thinks the concept of legacy is unfair in principle, but it is not wrong for an applicant to use legacy to his advantage if he can.

“My own son got in as a legacy,” Mason said. “ Do I think it’s fair? I don’t think it’s fair. Do I think it’s part of the game? Yes.”

In Bent’s opinion, the unpredictable nature of the college admissions process provides a good reason for applicants to use legacy to their advantage.

“I feel like so much of the admissions process is unpredictable,” Bent said. “So if there’s something that gives a student an edge, then if you have it, use it. Use everything you can to your advantage.”

African-American and Latino Scholars Program Director Christopher Vick also said he believes that while the concept of legacy is unfair, it is not fundamentally wrong for an applicant to use the resources available to him or her.

“If I have an unearned advantage, I’m going to take advantage of it,” Vick said. “Who wouldn’t? It would be foolish to say you’re not.”

Haley Bayne and Sarah Cardwell-Smith can be contacted at bhs.sagamore@gmail.com

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