Low-SAT Legacies Receive Lower GPAs

A study by two Princeton sociologists has found that students admitted to colleges primarily because of their legacy status are more likely to face academic difficulty than students admitted primarily because they are athletes or members of ethnic minorities.

Legacy students whose SAT scores are below the average scores of their peers earn consistently lower grade point averages in college—a phenomenon not experienced by minorities or athletes, according to the study.

The study did not, however, show that legacy admits tended to perform worse overall. The disparity applies only to those admitted with lower-than-average SAT scores.

At Harvard, SAT scores for Harvard legacy students are “virtually identical” to those of the rest of the student body, Harvard College Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said. He said that the admissions committee looks beyond SAT results in deciding whom to accept.

“There are always students from all types of backgrounds,” he said. “Test scores are only one of many criteria we use to admit people.”

Fitzsimmons said that legacies comprise about 12 to 13 percent of recent classes admitted to Harvard College. Their admission rate is between 34 and 35 percent, he said, in contrast to a rate of nine percent for the Class of 2011 as a whole.

According to Fitzsimmons, having a parent who graduated from Harvard or Radcliffe will tip the scale slightly in the admissions process. He added that legacy status is not the only factor explaining their higher success rate in admissions. Children of alumni often recognize the difficulty of gaining admission because of their parents’ familiarity with the University, and thus are “self-selecting,” he said.

“Many might decide based on this knowledge that they might choose not to apply unless they are particularly strong academically,” he said.

Avner May ’09, whose parents did not attend Harvard, said in a phone interview that he is not bothered by legacy admissions in most cases. However, he said that if two students had similarly low test scores, he would prefer to see a minority student gain admission rather than a legacy.

“Legacies are probably well off to begin with—they don’t need the extra help,” he said.

Ellie M. M. Campisano ’08, whose father graduated from Harvard College in 1975, agreed with Fitzsimmons’ assessment.

“I think that people should consider the possibility that legacies are getting in for valid academic reasons and that it’s possible that one of the ways they distinguish themselves from their parents is in other areas than academics,” she said.

Among other statistics, the Princeton study looked at self-reported SAT scores, GPAs, and parents’ college affiliations of 3,900 freshmen at 28 public and private colleges, obtained from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen in 1999.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.