Legacy admissions is a practice in which a college applicant’s chances of getting accepted are higher just because he or she is related to an alumni member, usually a parent.
Also referred to as legacy preferences or alumni relations, it is more commonly implemented at elite and private postsecondary institutions, such as Ivy League schools as well as others with high selectivity levels and low acceptance rates.
According to The New Yorker, more than 700 colleges and universities these days consider legacy status.
In the last admission cycle, the following are percentages of legacy students at some of the Ivy Leagues:
- Cornell University: 16.7%
- Harvard University: 14.6%
- Princeton University: 14%
- University of Pennsylvania: 13%
- Dartmouth College: 12%
- Yale University: 12%
And while you may or may not be considered a legacy, the information below will be useful when you evaluate your college chances.
What Is a Legacy Student
A legacy student is a college applicant or an undergraduate who has a close family member who attended the same institution.
As far as legacy admissions are concerned, a primary legacy status is considered the most influential.
College admissions officers refer to different legacy students in different ways:
- Primary legacy: a parent of the student attended the institution
- Double legacy: both parents of the student attended the institution
- Secondary legacy: any other relative of the student, like a grandparent or sibling, attended the institution
How much advantage you have in the admissions process where legacy status is considered depends on which family member or relative of yours graduated from the college.
Being a primary legacy, in most instances, is what matters at all to the admissions committee.
It doesn’t mean, however, that being related to any other person who attended the college won’t matter — it might still count for something, depending on the school’s standpoint.
Also, it’s worth noting that being a legacy student won’t help you in the admissions process at all times. Name-dropping at an institution where legacy status means nothing, for instance, will not add value to your college application.
However, there is no rule against talking in your supplemental essay about how a highly successful cousin or an aunt of yours had influenced you to consider earning an undergraduate degree from the college.
Legacy admissions and holistic admissions were both born for the same reason: to limit the number of Jewish students pursuing undergraduate degrees, especially at some of the country’s most elite institutions.
It all started in the early 20th century when more and more people began wanting a postsecondary education.
During that time, colleges and universities sought to homogenize their admissions process by considering high school GPAs and standardized test scores.
As a result, the number of Jewish undergraduates in colleges increased when academic performance became as important as family wealth and connections.
This prompted a lot of postsecondary institutions to introduce other criteria to take into account when reviewing applications to keep more Jews from getting in, which is essentially the founding of a holistic college admissions process.
To maintain the social status and power of the elite, legacy status was considered as well, especially at selective schools that aimed to preserve their long traditions, foster a sense of loyalty and enjoy financial support from alumni members.
For instance, horseback riding, which is available only for rich people, became more important than A+ in Math.
Is Legacy Admissions Good for Students or Colleges
Legacy admissions can be advantageous to legacy students in the sense that the college is very much likely to be the best-fit school for them given that their parents have a deep understanding of the institutions’ culture and values.
Giving legacy applicants an edge in the admissions process also offers the college some benefits, in particular, economically.
Increased Admissions Chances
Of course, legacy admissions is advantageous to the kids of alumni members.
The consideration of college admissions officers for legacy status gives legacy students a leg up in the review process, especially if they are primary legacies — their parent/s graduated from the institution.
However, like GPA in a holistic admissions process, one’s relationship with an alumni member is not the only factor taken into account where legacy admissions is being practiced.
You will still need to have something other than your surname in order to get into a competitive college whose admissions process is more rigorous than that of the rest.
Got successful parents and want to have the same careers as theirs?
Then attending the same college they did might be the best choice for you.
After all, it’s where they have completed the programs as well as acquired the social and professional skills that have helped them get to where they are right now.
Your parents know you very well.
Similarly, they know the college just as well — it’s where they spent 4 years of their entire undergraduate careers.
As such, they can serve as a reliable source of first-hand information during the college selection process.
How did the school prepare you for your career?
What particular experience did you have at the school that you absolutely loved?
What did you think of the dorm life?
How were the professors?
Not all kids, as one would expect, want to become like their parents as far as career goes.
Suppose that you are interested in an entirely different undergraduate program and career outcome.
Then, enrolling in the program of your choosing offered by the college your parents went to can still give you an edge admissions-wise.
That is, of course, if the institution has legacy admissions.
Strong Networking Opportunities
Networking is important for college and career success.
As an undergraduate student, it allows you to hone your social skills — it lets you improve your ability to communicate, listen, resolve conflicts and build meaningful relationships.
Simultaneously, networking as you work on your undergraduate degree also prepares you for a successful career by getting new information and ideas as well as obtaining referrals and new opportunities.
From internships, jobs to other professional pursuits, a strong network can be instrumental.
Ivy League schools and other prestigious institutions tend to shine when networking is the subject matter.
Elite schools are very good at connecting their students with other bright minds, including some of their most successful alumni members — some of whom are the parents and family members of legacy students.
Legacy admissions, in other words, helps keep student and alumni networks at colleges robust, intimate and dynamic.
High Yield Rate
Yield rate is the percentage of students who matriculate after being given an offer to attend.
Keeping the yield rate high is important for colleges for a couple of reasons:
- It allows for a more accurate prediction of the size of the incoming class
- It increases a school’s selectivity level and college ranking
Generally speaking, the yield rate is higher at some of the most competitive colleges in the country.
That’s because most of their applicants are high-performing students and are determined to enroll if accepted.
Legacy admissions also help many institutions of higher education, especially elite ones, keep their yield rate up because, time and again, legacy applicants are more likely to attend than most other applicants.
At Princeton University, for instance, nearly 89% of legacy students enroll compared to 69% of other admits.
There are a couple of reasons why legacy admissions is good for the college’s funds.
First, legacy students are less likely to apply for financial aid because they can pay the full sticker price.
Their parents are rich, which is why they were able to attend the prestigious school in the first place.
Especially if you are a legacy applicant to a college that has both legacy admissions and need-aware admissions policy where a student’s ability to pay is a consideration in the review process, your chances of getting in can be very high.
Second, admitting legacy students can help keep those big donations coming.
Alumni members often donate to their alma mater as an expression of their gratitude toward the top-notch education they had and the fantastic careers and successes they are currently enjoying.
Many of them do so, too, in order to let others have the same experience they had and are having.
By the college welcoming their kids just like them years ago, alumni members become delighted and are more likely to donate even more money, which then allows the institution to keep flourishing and producing successful individuals.
Why Legacy Admissions is Bad
And now, let’s talk about what makes legacy admissions bad.
A Less Diverse Campus
Legacy students tend to share a lot of things in common.
They are usually from high-income families.
It’s not unlikely for all of them to have attended private high schools. Most of them are capable of paying full tuition and are thus less likely to apply for financial aid.
What’s more, up to 70% of legacy students are whites.
Although colleges and universities with legacy admissions can benefit from giving legacy applicants preferential treatment in the review process, they can easily end up with less diverse and therefore less attractive student bodies.
It’s not just their reputation and ranking that may be placed on the line but also the experience of their attendees.
Perpetration of Inequality
By now, we have established the following facts:
- The vast majority of legacy students are rich white students
- Legacy admissions has its roots in keeping Jews out of elite campuses
Clearly, the consideration of legacy status in the admissions process can cause some college-bound teens to think that they are not worthy of attending their best-fit schools simply because their admissions officers feel that they don’t fit in.
Legacy status, even if it’s just a single component of a holistic review process, favors the privileged.
Suppose that Applicant 1 and Applicant 2 share the very same high school GPAs and test scores as well as equally impressive recommendations, supplemental essays and extracurricular activities.
Suppose, too, that they are also applying for the very same program.
However, Applicant 1 is the child of an alumni member who has been donating large sums of money to the institution for years as a token of gratitude, while Applicant 2 is the child of someone who went to a different college.
With legacy status a factor considered in the review process, college admissions officers can use it as some sort of tie-breaker and, needless to say, offer the remaining slot to the legacy applicant.
Less Credible Admissions
Generally speaking, colleges and universities with legacy admissions have a holistic approach to the review process — the relationship of an applicant to an alumni member is just one of the factors considered.
Holistic admissions is regarded as better than traditional admissions where GPAs and test scores are all that matter.
However, it can be subjective, too, since an institution may put more weight on specific admissions factors if it wants to favor certain applicants in an attempt to build its ideal campus community.
So, in other words, a holistic approach allows for the opportunity to admit more legacy applicants.
Having more legacy students on campus, as discussed earlier, can increase a college’s yield rate and, more importantly, endowment, which is something that helps keep it alive and maintain its stellar reputation.
Deserving Students Left Out
Last but not least, legacy admissions practiced by some colleges can rob deserving students of the opportunity to enjoy a high-quality education simply because their parents are non-alumni.
For many of them, attending second- or third-best college may be the only option.
Going for the wrong institution or program simply because their merit credentials are less important elsewhere may keep students from having the college experience necessary to pave the career paths vital for their upward mobility.
So, in other words, legacy admissions can hamper their climb up the socioeconomic ladder.
Colleges That Consider Legacy
According to Inside Higher Ed, up to 42% of admissions officers at private colleges and universities in the US take legacy status into account.
On the other hand, only 6% of public institutions do so — in some instances, public schools even grant out-of-state children of alumni members in-state status just to make a significant difference in their chances of getting admitted!
Below, you will come across a table of colleges and universities that consider legacy status.
It includes the top institutions in the nation, as per Best National University Rankings by US News, as well as the weight of an applicant’s legacy status according to each school’s most recent common data set (CDS), which can be:
- Very important
|Weight of Legacy Status
|Case Western Reserve University
|New York University
|Stony Brook University
|University of Chicago
|University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
|University of Notre Dame
|University of Pennsylvania
|University of Rochester
|University of Southern California
|University of Virginia
|Wake Forest University
|Washington University in St. Louis
|William & Mary
It’s true that a lot of colleges and universities with legacy admissions are prestigious ones with low acceptance rates.
However, there are also some competitive schools that do not consider legacy status in the admissions process.
Below are some of US News’ Best National University Rankings entries with no legacy admissions:
- California Institute of Technology
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Florida State University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Johns Hopkins University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Michigan State University
- North Carolina State University
- Northeastern University
- Ohio State University
- Purdue University
- Rutgers University – New Brunswick
- Texas A&M University
- University of California, Berkeley
- University of California, Davis
- University of California, Irvine
- University of California, Los Angeles
- University of California, San Diego
- University of California, Santa Barbara
- University of Connecticut
- University of Florida
- University of Georgia
- University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
- University of Maryland, College Park
- University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
- University of Texas at Austin
- University of Washington
- University of Wisconsin – Madison
Colleges That Dropped Legacy
Colleges and universities can change their admissions process as necessary.
True enough, some institutions of higher education that considered legacy status in the review process have changed the way they practice their legacy admissions, while others have scrapped the practice altogether.
In this part of the post, we’ll take a quick look at how some schools changed or removed their legacy admissions.
A private liberal arts college attended by less than 2,000 undergraduates, Amherst ended its legacy admissions policy in 2021 as it introduced a new financial aid program for low- and middle-income attendees.
Carnegie Mellon University
In its 2022 to 2023 CDS, the factor alumni/ae relation is no longer being considered by Carnegie Mellon — in prior years, the said factor was taken into account by the private research university located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Johns Hopkins University
Considered both a Hidden Ivy and an Ivy Plus, Johns Hopkins has been transitioning away from legacy admissions for many years, which culminated in 2014 — and it has paid off in the form of a surge in racial diversity in the last decade.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
With an acceptance rate of 4%, MIT is one of the most highly selective colleges in the country. However, unlike its peers, the private research university has quit giving legacy applicants special treatment since at least 2006.
University of Pittsburgh
According to a Pitt spokesperson, the public institution known for majors such as business and engineering, has actually stopped its legacy admissions back in 2020 even if its last few CDS reports have been saying otherwise.
A selective liberal arts institution ranked #11 in National Liberal Arts Colleges 2024 by US News, Wesleyan announced back on July 19, 2023 that it would completely stop including legacy status in its admissions process.
According to Education Reform Now, up to 89% of college admissions officers no longer consider legacy status, which has increased from a similar polling before 2019.
On the other hand, 75% of public colleges and universities do not provide any legacy preference — there are only 5 states where many government-funded institutions of higher education give the kids of alumni members admissions advantage.
Whether more colleges will change or abolish their legacy admissions, only time will tell.
As such, it’s hard to predict the college admissions landscape in the next few years, although calls for a more equitable process of admitting students may cause some institutions to look for other ways to maintain alumni legacy and support.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.