What Should Harvard’s Legacy Be?

With a 5.9 percent admissions rate, getting into Harvard is a roll of the dice. There are thousands of qualified students around the country who could get in, but don’t. As students here, we have a rare opportunity filled with incredible experiences —experiences enhanced by the diversity of our peers.

Deciding who gets into Harvard is obviously difficult. How should the admissions committee control for significant differences in life circumstances?

The Harvard College admissions office reports that “daughters and sons of Harvard College alumni/ae may receive an additional look” in the admissions process. What does this “additional look” grant them? According to researcher Michael Hurwitz, legacy status—that is, applying as the child of an alumnus—gives applicants a significantly better chance of acceptance. At top elite American colleges, legacy applicants are, on average, three times more likely to get accepted than non-legacies—even after controlling for characteristics like wealth and race.

According to the Class of 2018 survey, 16 percent of freshmen who answered the survey are considered legacy students—at least one of their parents attended Harvard. A further 37.3 percent of freshmen legacy students come from families with incomes of $500,000 or more. Students who occupy this income bracket are also more likely to have employed private college counseling than those from lower-income backgrounds. Surveys are imperfect, but we believe that these data tell a larger story.

These facts suggest that legacy students often have access to more resources than non-legacy students. We aren’t suggesting that legacy students aren’t qualified—they obviously are. We simply question the fairness of preferential treatment for legacy applicants in the admissions process, purely on the basis of their parents’ alumni status.

We want to better understand Harvard’s admissions process. As it currently stands, the admissions office lacks transparency in their explanation of potentially significant factors such as legacy status. When legacy students have likely received support and access to resources in the college application process, why should the admissions office privilege them further? We don’t have a satisfactory answer.

It’s impossible to simultaneously give preference to a generally privileged group of students and trumpet a commitment to diversity. Harvard claims to broaden students’ world views by exposing them to each others’ experiences. This is part of its “transformative” liberal arts education. By perpetuating a legacy of unequal access, Harvard is not living up to its commitment to its students.

We want to ensure that all qualified students have a fair chance to gain admission regardless of where their parents did or did not go to college. We recognize that a Harvard without legacy preference is not a Harvard without legacy students. Legacy students are often qualified—and privileged.

With these ideas in mind, we want the College to eliminate legacy preference in admissions, to make the admissions process more transparent, to release concrete data about the socioeconomic distribution of the student body, and to actively strive toward a legacy of equal access for its many qualified applicants.

This is not an unreasonable request: Peer institutions like MIT are openly against using legacy preference in admissions decisions. It’s possible to remain elite without relying on generational preferences.

As one of America’s esteemed universities, Harvard has a responsibility to ensure representation and inclusion of America’s extraordinary diversity. America’s oldest university must be accessible.

We are excited to introduce the Harvard Legacy Project, an opportunity to speak openly about these issues. After our op-ed last spring, our movement has grown. We’ve received wide support from students and alumni who care about equal access. We believe that stellar applicants—regardless of their backgrounds—should have equal access to the amazing opportunities that Harvard has to offer.

We invite you to join us in our conversations about the importance of diversity—in all of its forms.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Jordan T. Weiers ’16 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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