Giving legacy applicants an extra glance—effectively what Harvard’s current practices amount to—has clear benefits in terms of alumni giving and involvement. The argument that one’s legacy status should not be considered at all, creating some newfangled meritocracy, is too idealistic. It also assumes too much about the goodwill of donors and Harvard’s ability to withstand a reduction in alumni donations.
For better or for worse, alumni giving is a somewhat selfish prospect. Yes, alumni give because they believe in Harvard’s mission and want to give back to an institution that gave them so much. Some alumni may even be so idealistic as to give more to an institution that disavows benefits to legacies in the admissions process.
Yet many alumni, consciously or not, give because they hope that their children will be able to attend Harvard. They also give because they want the Harvard that their children may attend to be as great as the one they attended. Such donations subsidize on-campus opportunities for all Harvard students—including the majority who are not legacies.
Nor should we trade the current system, as some of proposed, for a system of “development” admissions, in which a small number of spots in every freshman class would effectively be auctioned off, resulting in even higher revenues for everyone else’s financial aid. Relying on only mega-donations from the parents of such “development admits” is not enough. The decline in grassroots donations that would result from taking away what amounts to a feather on the admissions scale is too high of a price for the College to pay.
But the benefit of giving legacies a second look amounts to more than just the monetary value of increased alumni donations. Engaged alumni enrich Harvard by their presence. Alumni constantly return to campus to participate in the Harvard community, and it would be naïve to think legacy admissions has nothing to do with their presence. From guests who share their thoughts and experiences as class guests or speakers to alumni who interview applicants to grads who help students network and find jobs, engaged alumni incalculably enrich the University.
To be sure, using legacy to significantly warp Harvard’s near-meritocracy would be a shame. But as is, Harvard has so many overqualified applicants that it has an extremely difficult time discriminating among them. Legacy status may amount to a small consideration, but the decision to admit a student is often made on such minor differences.
This is particularly true when one considers that legacy preference will not make the difference between a well-off legacy from a fancy private school and a student of little means who is a diamond in the rough at an underachieving school. Instead, it will make the difference when the admissions office is considering two students of the former type: one whose parents went to Yale and one whose parents went to Harvard. In these cases, giving the spot to the legacy does not ruin a conception of meritocracy in admissions.
There are many other arguments for legacy admission. Most notably, some argue that having the children of the rich and powerful attend Harvard makes Harvard a better place. Whether one is persuaded by these arguments or not, it is worth paying extra attention to legacy applicants for the sake of having a more engaged community of alumni alone.
Adam M. Guren ’08, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. Reva P. Minkoff ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.