One of the most high-profile legal cases in higher education today is Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the lawsuit alleging that Harvard University unconstitutionally engages in racial balancing by keeping the number of Asian students artificially low in order to admit more black and Hispanic applicants.
In connection with the case, Harvard was forced to disclose data on legacy preferences, revealing that the admissions rate for legacy applicants was five times the rate of nonlegacy students. Although legacy preferences appear to be racially neutral, they have a racially discriminatory effect. By overwhelmingly benefiting affluent, white families, legacy preferences preserve racial hierarchies, rig the system in favor of the wealthy and stymie efforts to expand educational opportunity to historically excluded populations.
That is why I am pledging $5,000 to my alma mater, Vanderbilt University, if it abolishes legacy admissions within two years. I ask alumni to join me in calling on this practice to end, and I call on alumni of other institutions to demand their schools end legacy as well.
Legacy preferences are “based on ancestry … yet offer none of the countervailing benefits of affirmative action, such as remedying past discrimination or promoting educational diversity,” according to Richard Kahlenberg, author of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. Universities like Harvard have defended legacy preferences as a method to buttress alumni donations, but an empirical analysis of the impact of legacy preferences on alumni giving by Coffman, O’Neil and Starr analyzed the top 100 national universities as determined by U.S. News & World Report and found “no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”
Other selective universities do not consider legacy and have large endowments, powerful networks and strong college pride, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. This is not to say that legacy has no beneficial impact on the alumni donation rate. But are the benefits of alumni giving as a result of legacy worth the costs of perpetuating the perception of elite institutions as factories for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege?
As noted in Kahlenberg’s book, in 2008, 19.4 percent of Vanderbilt’s entering first-year class were alumni children. The admissions rate for legacies that year was 29.8 percent, compared to the 25.3 percent rate for all applicants. Vanderbilt admissions dean Doug Christiansen has said, “our children of our alumni are highly prepared students; in a large, whole host of cases, they would have been admitted anyway.” If that is true, then providing an admissions edge to very privileged, qualified applicants seems gratuitous.
Though the legacy admissions rate is only a few percentage points higher than the nonlegacy rate, this information does not tell us about the underlying strength of legacy and nonlegacy candidates. At a minimum, Vanderbilt should disclose more information on (1) the legacy admission rate at each undergraduate division and (2) the racial and gender demographics of legacy admits. The university should review the #FullDisclosure Initiative and work with students at FirstVU, the group focused on empowering first-generation college students, to disclose any other pertinent information.
Now that previously all-white, all-male alumni bodies have more diverse alumni, minority groups who stand to benefit from legacy in greater numbers than before may have mixed feelings about abolishing preferences that have benefited white families for generations. But due to historical and ongoing inequities in education, the pool of legacy applicants from racial minority groups is disproportionately small. It would be more effective to build coalitions focused on removing structural barriers to educational opportunity generally, including by supporting affirmative action and programs that cultivate the talents of students regardless of their wealth. Legacy policies, which originated as strategy to keep the number of Jewish students at elite universities low, stand in the way.
Vanderbilt’s efforts to make higher education more accessible through financial aid programs like Opportunity Vanderbilt deserve praise. It is through the generous donations of alumni and benefactors that I was able to attend on a full scholarship.
But we need more opportunity and mobility for high school kids across America, from Bluefield, W.V., to the Bronx, N.Y. With all his flaws, Thomas Jefferson rejected the system of hereditary privilege of the English monarchy and hoped America could be a natural aristocracy based on virtue and talent. For the sake of the hopes and dreams of high school kids who have the grades and talent but not the connections or money, Vanderbilt should abolish legacy and tell Harvard it needs to do the same.
Editor's Note: Vanderbilt officials confirmed that legacy status is one "variable" that may be considered as part of holistic admissions. There is no set goal for the percentage of a class to be made up of alumni children. In the fall of 2018, the figure was 15.9 percent.