The Harvard campus today is a far cry from what it was 50 or even 20 years ago. With an increasingly diverse student body, a robust financial aid program, the withdrawal of official recognition for final clubs, and a randomized housing system, the College has taken numerous steps to stop privileging the rich and well-connected above other students.
A notable exception to the general trend is Harvard’s relative inertia with regard to giving legacy students preference during the admissions process. Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages—a practice that should be officially discontinued.
While Harvard has traditionally been reticent about the specifics that go into admissions decisions, Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 stated in a 2003 Wall Street Journal article that legacy status is used as a “tie-breaker between comparable candidates” during the admissions process.
Displaying favoritism toward students because of their lineage rather than individual accomplishments or academic achievement runs contrary to the meritocratic values that the College ought to promote. Despite the diversification of Harvard’s alumni pool in recent years, legacy preference still overwhelmingly favors white applicants from wealthy backgrounds, whose relatives have historically enjoyed an edge in admission to the College.
Proponents of legacy admissions point to the utilitarian benefits of admitting the children of alumni. It is said that legacies are more likely to matriculate if accepted, thereby augmenting a school’s yield. Alumni are also thought to be more generous in donating their money, and perhaps their time, to their alma mater if they think those contributions will increase the chances of a son or daughter getting in.
These concerns largely ignore the preponderance of other factors that lead students to choose schools and alumni to give to them. Some students choose to attend Harvard because their parents went there, but many other students choose based on the College’s unrivaled financial aid package or because the Harvard name is attractive enough by itself. Likewise, alumni donate and involve themselves with their alma mater for a wide variety of reasons—perhaps because they believe in Harvard’s mission and core values or because their time at the College was a formative experience in their lives.
Harvard’s really big donors, the ones who underwrite research funds and other initiatives at the College, will likely continue to donate for philanthropic reasons, regardless of legacy preference. Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct payback for their contributions.
Even if Harvard stops giving legacy preference tomorrow, plenty of highly-qualified legacy applicants will continue to be admitted to the College. Being a child of a Harvard graduate already confers many advantages: The zip code one lives in, the type of school one attends, and the type of academic and college preparation enrichment that one has access to may all directly or indirectly relate to where one’s parents went to school. There is no need to confer an additional advantage to those whom the circumstances of birth have already endowed with plenty.
Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.