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The spring admissions scandal and the lawsuit against Harvard University's admissions policies have a few things in common. Both have focused attention on (legal) advantages of wealthy applicants. Documents in the Harvard case have shown that Asian American applicants would do better than they have historically in a review that did not consider such factors as alumni relatives or athletics. White applicants tend to gain when those factors are included.

And many colleges have legacy preferences. Last year's survey of college admissions directors by Inside Higher Ed found that 42 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions. The figure at public institutions is only 6 percent.

Amid numerous critical op-eds about legacy admissions, the think tank New America has proposed that colleges lose eligibility for federal student aid if they favor alumni children. Higher education groups have opposed the idea. Many college presidents have argued that legacy preferences (especially at private institutions) are a legitimate way to build community for a college. Amid the debate, there has been little information on a key question: Does legacy status play a significant role in getting in to top colleges?

As it turns out, there has been one in-depth analysis of the impact of legacy status on admissions at elite private colleges. The study isn't new. It was published in 2011 in Economics of Education Review (abstract available here), based on data from a few years before that. The author is the first to admit that, in the years since, competition for admission to elite colleges has become even more intense, and some of those colleges have stepped up efforts to admit a more diverse set of students. But he does not know of any research with this focus that has been published more recently.

To cut to the chase: the study offers some ammunition to those on both sides of the debate over legacy admissions at top colleges. Critics will find reinforcement for their view that being a legacy has a significant impact on odds of admission. But defenders of legacy admission will find support for their view that the legacy applicants being admitted are academically strong and that there isn't evidence of unqualified legacies getting in through this route.

The author in fact avoided taking a position on legacy admissions.

"Rather than taking a stance on the issue, I have attempted to describe findings without ascribing labels to them as 'good' or 'bad,'" the paper ends. "Although the admissions advantage received by legacy applicants may strike some readers as unacceptably large, I urge readers to consider that donations from alumni are increasingly important to the well-being of this paper’s sampled schools. Among several of these sampled schools, the operating budgets rely more heavily on money drawn from endowments and annual gifts than on tuition revenue. Alumni sustain these endowments through charitable gifts and contribute to annual funds that channel money to financial aid for low-income students."

The author of the paper is Michael Hurwitz, and he wrote the paper as a graduate student at Harvard University. He currently leads a research team at the College Board focused on data that could be used to help colleges recruit diverse students. Hurwitz stressed in an interview that the positions in his paper (and that he shared) are based on his research at Harvard and that he was not speaking for the College Board.

The sample Hurwitz studied was made up of 307,643 domestic applications to 30 of the most selective private colleges and universities in 2007. The applications came from 133,236 people (many of whom applied to more than one college in the sample). The study does not name the colleges whose applications were studied. The paper noted that the colleges are not representative of all colleges -- their admissions standards are more stringent, their admit rates are lower and their admitted students are more likely to be white and wealthy than are the applicant pools of all colleges. Of course, this is the band of colleges in which legacy admissions could matter the most -- at colleges that are not competitive in admissions, the admission of legacy applicants does not take away slots from others.

When he compared applicants, Hurwitz looked at both "primary" and "secondary" legacies. He defined primary legacies as those with a parent who attended the institution as an undergraduate. He defined secondary legacies as those who had a parent attend a graduate program at the institution, or who had a grandparent, aunt, uncle or sibling attend as an undergraduate.

Here are findings on average SAT scores and admit rates for the two kinds of legacy applicants, compared to those with no legacy connection. The findings show that the legacy applicant pool had slightly higher SAT scores on average, although in a range that admissions experts say should not be a determining factor in admissions decisions.

Comparing the Legacy Impact

  No Legacy Primary Legacy Secondary Legacy
Mean SAT Critical Reading 679 699 684
Mean SAT Mathematics 685 694 689
Admit Rate (total) 20.5% 43.7% 31.4%
Admit Rate (early decision) 39.0% 56.8% 51.5%

The findings illustrate that primary legacy status is more powerful than other legacy connections. And the findings show a strong impact added on to the gains that applicants tend to receive for applying early decision.

Put another way, Hurwitz found that a primary legacy applicant was more than three times more likely to be admitted than he or she would have been without legacy status. To check his general statistics, Hurwitz also examined the many applicants in his pool who applied to several colleges of comparable levels of competitiveness, but at only one of which was the applicant a legacy. The analysis held up.

Hurwitz's paper stressed that it is hard to know exactly why any given applicant would be admitted or rejected by a given institution. Those in his pool use holistic admissions, and applicants are quite capable of flubbing one essay and not another, or of having stronger recommendations for one college than another. Still, the pattern held.

The difficulty of judging the legacy impact, Hurwitz said, is in part created by the competitiveness of colleges at this level -- competitiveness that has increased in the years since.

"The vast majority of students who apply are exceptional," he said. "And that is also true for legacy students as well. All of the applicants cluster."

In this environment, he said, "admissions decisions are about splitting hairs." It is in this environment that legacy status helps, he said.

As a result, his findings -- that legacy status helps a lot, but among qualified applicants -- leave him on the fence.

"I continue to understand that it's very complicated," Hurwitz said. "I understand both sides of the story."

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