End Legacy Admissions

Look at the number of seats legacy preferences get and compare them to Black applicants, writes Joseph Price.

September 28, 2020
iStock.com/William Potter

We tell our children that education is the great equalizer. We say that in America if one commits themselves to their studies, if they are persistent, they can reach amazing heights. In America we speak of equal opportunity under the law. We understand that not every child has the same abilities, but we expect that all are given the same shot to reach their full potential.

In these turbulent times, we see inequity for individuals with brown skin, for the disadvantaged and lower middle class. We see that justice is not blind, that hiring practices are not diverse, that housing and health-care opportunities are presented in tiers. As a college and career counselor and a higher education doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi, I view higher education as a means to break this cycle of unfairness, inequality and bias. I envision education as a tool to destroy institutional racism. However, the elite, the well-bred, the white and wealthy scoff at these notions as they use legacy admission practices to fill their education programs with applicants that look quite similar to college yearbooks from the 1930s or the 1850s.

For those unaware, legacy applicants are college aspirants who have family connections with alumni. Legacy admissions is an affirmative action education program that benefits college applicants of the most wealthy and successful families in America. This well-manicured thumb on the scale of college admissions produces manifest inequity for African Americans and first-generation college students. Students who have benefited from living in homes with higher income, educated in districts with more resources, and possessing more institutional advantages are pushed ahead of worthy applicants who have achieved educational success without nearly the same opportunities.

Legacy admission practices were used in the early 20th century to deny Roman Catholics and Jews an equal opportunity to higher education. It is by every measure a means to elevate individuals of the established order and aristocracy over those applicants who have attained educational success despite their disadvantaged ecosystem. Nearly 75 percent of the top 100 colleges in America use legacy admissions as a metric to judge perspective applicant admission packages. At Harvard University, the yearly acceptance rate for nonlegacy applicants is 6 percent. However, from 2010 through 2015 the legacy applicant admission rate was 33 percent. To put it more bluntly (and isn’t it time), Harvard admits more legacy students than they do African American, Native American or Latino students combined.

To be fair, legacy admissions are not in and of themselves racist. If historically Black colleges and universities practiced legacy admissions, one could argue that it would promote educational stability to families and whole communities that are often members of society with few advantages. But legacy admission policies are racist when they are practiced by white-dominant, elite institutions such as Harvard, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia. These universities pay lip service to diversity but shut the door to applicants who do not look like previous graduating classes.

The state of Michigan has an African American population of 14 percent. The University of Michigan has an African American acceptance rate of 4 percent. You read that right, 4 percent of African Americans are granted entrée into Michigan’s hallowed halls of education. In raw numbers that is less than 1,800 African Americans on a campus of 46,000. But wait -- the university website states that “The University of Michigan cannot be excellent without being diverse in the broadest sense of that word. We also must ensure that our community allows all individuals an equal opportunity to thrive … We know that by building a critical mass of diverse groups on campus and creating a vibrant climate of inclusiveness, we can more effectively leverage the resources of diversity to advance our collective capabilities.”

The University of Michigan adheres to legacy admission practices, stating, “Having a parent, step-parent, grandparent or sibling … is considered during the holistic review process.” So, if only 4 percent of African Americans gain acceptance into the university, what are the odds that an African American applicant enters the University of Michigan with legacy admission status?

The University of Virginia also uses legacy admission practices to fill their program rosters. Roughly 20 percent of Virginia’s citizens are African American. African American admission at Thomas Jefferson’s university tops out at 6 percent, less than 1,400 students. Enslaved African Americans literally built the campus of the University of Virginia. A recent university report acknowledged “in every way imaginable [slavery was] central to the project of designing, funding, building, and maintaining the school.” During much of 19th century, there was one slave for every 20 students, which ironically is only 1 percent less than the current African American population on UVA’s campus. The university states that diversity and inclusion are important and that they foster a “welcoming environment that embraces the full spectrum of human attributes, perspectives, and disciplines. When people of different backgrounds come together, they exchange ideas, question assumptions, and broaden the horizons for us all.”

The university admissions FAQ webpage states that legacy is “acknowledged” during the admission process. “Acknowledged” sounds genteel and polite. One acknowledges that it often rains in the spring and gets hot in August. The word connotes a passive admission to an agreed issue. However, when one learns that nearly 47 percent of all “legacies” that applied to UVA in the 2018 admission cycle received admission, the word “acknowledge” seems a bit timid; surely “endorses,” “encourages” and “promotes” would be better descriptors of the admission process.

Preparing for the college admission process is very difficult for many students. You might wonder how nearly 50 percent of legacy applications at UVA are accepted for admission. The University of Virginia created a separate admission program for legacy admissions. The Admission Liaison Program (ALP) is a program specifically for children of alumni. This program allows future applicants to attend special events and webinars and schedule one-on-one transcript consultations throughout the applicant’s high school years.

Essentially, the University of Virginia, with a 6 percent African American population, determined that children of wealthy, mostly white parents did not have enough advantages in the admission process. They fixed this critical shortage of elitism by developing a program that enables the rich, white and privileged to succeed at the cost of those without similar historical advantages. By producing a program that is advantageous to legacy students, the University of Virginia promulgates elitist, racial policies that stunt social mobility.

Less than 10 percent of low-income children ever receive a college degree, whereas 80 percent of children from high-income households graduate from college. It is long past time to acknowledge that legacy admissions are divisive, fundamentally unfair and promote disenfranchisement of African Americans and first-generation college students.


Joe Price is a higher education doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi.



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