Harvard’s acceptance rate for legacies has hovered around 30 percent—more than four times the regular admission rate—in recent admissions cycles, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 told The Crimson in an interview this week.
Fitzsimmons also said that Harvard’s undergraduate population is comprised of approximately 12 to 13 percent legacies, a group he defined as children of Harvard College alumni and Radcliffe College alumnae.
Fitzsimmons’ comments came the week after a discussion at New York University on legacy admissions between Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel, senior fellow at The Century Foundation Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, and Bloomberg News editor at large Daniel L. Golden ’78.
According to a New York Times story on the event, Brenzel said that Yale rejected 80 percent of its legacy applicants. Brenzel reported that Yale legacies comprise less than 10 percent of the class, according to Kahlenberg.
Brenzel also said that there is a positive correlation between alumni donations and legacy admissions. According to Brenzel, Yale fundraising suffers when fewer legacies are accepted. Still, he said, this year Yale rejected more children of top donors than it accepted.
Asked if the Admissions Office communicates with University development at Harvard, Fitzsimmons emphasized the copious amount of information he receives about each applicant. “There is no formal mechanism of communication,” he said.
Kahlenberg, who edited a book entitled “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions,” has worked to draw attention to the issue of legacy admissions at highly selective colleges.
“There’s been so much focus on affirmative action in college admissions ... Here there is a very large affirmative action program for wealthy students that gets very little attention,” Kahlenberg said. “It’s really a relic of European-style aristocracy that has no place in American higher education.”
Fitzsimmons defended Harvard’s legacy admissions rate.
“If you look at the credentials of Harvard alumni and alumnae sons and daughters, they are better candidates on average,” said Fitzsimmons, part of what he sees as the explanation for the disparity in the acceptance rate. “Very few who apply have no chance of getting in.”
Because of the family background of legacies, he said, students are more likely to be aware if they are unlikely to be accepted.
“It does no one any good to have a student come here and have an unhappy experience,” Fitzsimmons said.
Fitzsimmons said that legacy status, in addition to factors such as place of residence, acts as one of many “tips” in the admissions process at Harvard. All other things being substantially equal, he said, legacy status can “tip” an applicant into the group of accepted students.
But Fitzsimmons emphasized that a number factors, beyond the “tip,” lead to this higher acceptance rate. He said the pool of legacy applicants is a self-selecting group.
“Some parents are particularly reluctant to push their own institution,” Fitzsimmons said. “They want to make sure that their son or daughter really wants to go.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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