Another Look at Equity Issues

Don Hossler, Jerry Lucido and Emily Chung consider legacy preferences, early decision and other issues and draw attention to a key fact: the limited number of slots at elite institutions.

October 23, 2017

Two recent articles caught our attention. The first appeared in Inside Higher Ed’s “Admissions Insider.” The article reported on a study undertaken by Naviance (which is part of Hobsons) that examined the admission of legacy admits to selective colleges and universities. The Naviance database looked across years 2014-17 and included 64 colleges with 100 or more legacy applicants. A key finding was that most of the legacy admits were as qualified as the other students admitted. The article closes with this quote: “Legacy applicants are more likely to be academically overqualified for the same institution their parent(s) attended than the general population.” Perhaps that should make observers of equity and college admissions feel better. Perhaps it should make institutions that use legacy admissions as part of their admissions decisions feel better -- but then again, perhaps not. Let us explain.

The other article that caught our attention was published in The New York Times. The headline read, “Even With Affirmative Action, Blacks and Hispanics Are More Underrepresented at Top Colleges Than 35 Years Ago.” At first glance, these two articles might not appear to have much in common, but we would like to suggest that perhaps they do.

To these two news articles we would also add some additional context: early-admission practices at highly selective institutions. It is well established that early-admissions programs advantage affluent students whose parents are college graduates. These students are more likely to have access to private counseling and/or attend affluent suburban high schools or private high schools that have strong college guidance programs. Like legacy admissions practices, early-admission programs can also reduce the number seats for low-income/first-generation students.

The term “undermatching” has joined the lexicon of college admissions and college access discussions. This term is typically used to describe high-performing low-income students who do not apply to elite colleges and universities to which they should be admissible (based on test scores and grades). But if they did apply, would they be admitted, and how does this question relate to early admits or legacy admits?

In 2004, Anthony Marx, then the president of Amherst College, announced an initiative to increase socioeconomic diversity at the college. In some discussions with other presidents and enrollment professionals, he was candid that he would have to increase the size of the entering class to achieve this goal and avoid cuts in the number of legacy and other applicants admitted. He noted that the number of slots reserved for legacy students, early admits, athletes and other populations of students meant that there were not enough seats in the entering first-year class to also focus on socioeconomic diversity.

Several years earlier, William Bowen, then president of Princeton, also observed that the children of alumni got preferential treatment but low-income students did not. In these statements, Marx and Bowen raise questions regarding the extent to which legacy admits at elite colleges might limit the admission of low-income students.

A disproportionate number of low-income, high-ability students are African-American and Latino students. Might this be one of the reasons that elite colleges have seen a decline in the number of African-American and Latino students? Critics have long demonstrated that first-generation, low-income students are less likely to apply for early-admission programs; many of these students do not even know there is something called early admission. And it is axiomatic that they are rarely legacy students.

In a 2016 study, Jessica S. Howell and Matea Pender estimate that if elite institutions were to increase the number of students admitted by less than 1 percent, these colleges and universities would have a sufficient number of seats to admit all qualified low-income students. But we have no evidence that elite institutions are systematically increasing the number of seats for new first-year students. There are, however, suggestions on several college advising websites that the number of students being admitted by early decision is increasing and that the number of students applying to highly selective schools is increasing.

Our main point here is: even when the ability of legacy applicants, or early-admission applicants, is similar to that of students admitted through regular processes, for elite institutions with a finite number of places, each seat that is devoted to legacy admissions and early admits is one more way to limit access for other qualified applicants, especially qualified low-income students.


Don Hossler is senior scholar at the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Planning and Practice. Jerry Lucido is executive director of the center. Emily Chung is associate director of the center.

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