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“We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status.”
So said Amherst College president Biddy Martin when she announced last fall that the college was abandoning the practice of favoring children or grandchildren of alumni in admissions. A similar announcement was made in 2020 by Johns Hopkins University, and the states of Colorado, Connecticut and New York have either passed or proposed legislation to eliminate the practice. And while we’re at it, why not ban the practice at the federal level—which is just what is before Congress now in a bill co-sponsored by a New York congressman and an Oregon senator.
Let’s be clear: we have been committed to equity and access throughout our respective 40-plus years in college admissions and financial aid. Ending the preference for qualified children and grandchildren of alumni on a statewide or national level looks good and sounds right to those equally committed to access and opportunity. The fact is, however, that legacy preferences are really only an issue at the top selective colleges in the country, where most applicants are qualified to do the academic work. In these limited cases, giving the nod to a qualified legacy (who may be marginally less qualified than a nonlegacy) does exclude someone else.
But what about most colleges and universities that are not überselective? Does ending the practice of legacy admissions statewide or nationally really promote access to these institutions? Many of these colleges need to admit as many qualified applicants as they can in order to secure their optimal enrollments, so there typically would not be a “legacy trade-off” factor for the majority of U.S. colleges and universities.
A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center found that only 3.4 percent of the four-year colleges and universities in the study admitted 20 percent or less of their applicants, accounting for just 4.1 percent of the total student enrollment. Over half (53.3 percent) of the schools admitted more than two-thirds of their applicants, including some well-known institutions such as George Mason University, Virginia Tech and St. John’s University in New York.
It is simply not true that a highly qualified student, passed over in favor of a qualified legacy, will be denied the opportunity to go to college. Is it anti-access/opportunity for a student denied admission to Princeton to instead enroll at Johns Hopkins? Or a student denied at Williams to be admitted to and enroll at Amherst? We think not.
In an essay last fall, Catharine B. Hill, president emerita of Vassar College and managing director at Ithaka S+R, underscored this point:
The problem is that more-selective colleges enroll a large number of students from higher-income brackets. For many highly selective institutions, chances are that if the legacy applicant is passed over, the student who takes the spot will have the same profile in terms of academic preparation and extracurricular experience. The only difference is that they won’t have alumni parents. If legacy status no longer matters, an Ivy League university will simply admit the children of another Ivy’s alumni.
Hill goes on to say that the real problem is that most colleges are need aware in admission—that is, on the margin (admittedly a sometimes large margin), they consider in the admission decision a family’s ability to pay. Let’s take this one step further: ending need-aware admission and requiring institutions to be need blind will do little to further access unless the full need of admitted students is met. We argue that a national goal ought to be the elimination of the gap between the amount a student needs to meet college expenses and the amount of financial aid awarded.
Only the wealthiest and most selective institutions are fully need blind in admission and meet the full need of those admitted. These include, but are not limited to, the 21 private college members of the 568 Group, who have been given an exemption from federal antitrust laws on the condition that they be need blind and meet full need. Perhaps another dozen schools meet this requirement but have elected not to belong to the group, which has its own methodology for determining financial need for institutional aid resources.
And of course, the definition of “need” is squishy to say the least, varying from institution to institution depending on whether the federal methodology or some other method is used for the awarding of institutional aid. Nevertheless, the number of schools meeting 100 percent of need is small—only 77 of the almost 2,300 four-year public and private nonprofit institutions in the U.S. by one count. And there are likely a handful more that report meeting 95 percent of need—close enough to full need given the noise in need-analysis formulas and the utilization of professional judgment. But we are still looking at a majority of colleges and universities—likely in excess of 90 percent—whose insufficient aid leaves a gap between the students’ financial resources and the cost of attendance.
What happens when students are gapped in financial aid? Typically, they borrow more to bridge that gap, drop out before finishing or forgo college altogether. While 56 percent of college students borrow less than $20,000, a recent Brookings Institution study showed that 6 percent of borrowers owe more than $100,000, amounting to a third of the current outstanding student loan debt. The student loan crisis in this country is actually concentrated among those who have borrowed more than $60,000 (14 percent of all borrowers), who owe over half (52 percent) of the outstanding national loan balance. Low-income students are, expectedly, overrepresented in this group.
Six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time undergraduates who enrolled at four-year institutions hover around 60 percent, with more than two-thirds of college dropouts being low-income students with family incomes of under $50,000. There are certainly reasons other than finances that impact retention, but the high concentration of low-income dropouts combined with the fact that the vast majority of colleges do not award enough financial aid to meet the demonstrated need of lower-income students certainly contributes to a lack of access and opportunity to enroll in and successfully complete college. No doubt, this has a far greater numerical impact on access than do legacy admission policies.
While it is politically expedient to ban a practice (legacy admissions) in the name of access, it is much more difficult to eliminate the practice of financial aid gapping. Where will the money come from to fund 100 percent of student need? Let’s start with the states. According to Pew, most award over 90 percent of student aid dollars to needy students, but at least 16 states award more than half of their student aid grants based on grades and test scores and not on need. Granted, some of these students have financial need, but certainly not all of them do.
Likewise, institutions themselves award so-called merit or academic scholarships to applicants in order to influence their college choice—in business terms, undercutting the competition’s price to secure the sale. Giving a well-qualified but not necessarily needy student a significant discount may gain an enrollment but potentially takes money away from truly needy and also academically qualified students, forcing them to borrow excessively or to drop out. Nationally, one out of every five students received institutionally funded scholarship dollars based on their competitive credentials and not on their demonstrated need for assistance.
For those committed to access and student success, eliminating legacy preferences in college admissions is mere window dressing compared to the structural barrier of failing to provide the needed financial aid to make college enrollment and completion achievable for low-income students. We can’t be certain that all barriers to access and degree completion would be removed by eliminating non-need-based aid in favor of grant dollars based on demonstrated financial need. However, a concerted movement in this direction by colleges and universities, in partnership with state and federal governments, would be a huge step toward equity, access and opportunity in college admissions, retention and graduation.