A Losing Legacy

For a more equitable admissions process and campus, the legacy advantage must go

Harvard students love to argue, but they can agree on one thing: Getting in wasn’t easy. This year’s admissions rate hit a record low at 5.3 percent. The year before, it was 5.9. Before that, 5.8.

The numbers seem formidably small, and Harvard as an institution seems just plain formidable. For one subset of students, however, the odds of admission nearly triple. Who are these lucky few? They are not the group of all students who boasted 4.0 GPAs in high school. They are not the group of all students who earned 2400s on their SATs. They are not even the group of all students who occupied top leadership positions on newspapers, or sports teams, or student councils. They are the group of all students who had at least one parent attend Harvard College.

Recently, legacy admissions have sparked less discussion on campus than affirmative action, or Harvard’s preferential treatment of athletes in admissions. No pending lawsuit alleges that legacy preference resulted in a student’s rejection, and no Supreme Court cases compliment or condemn the practice. But the advantage afforded to children of alumni is a glaring example of poor policy on Harvard’s part, one that flies in the face of fairness and one that only contributes to the College’s culture of valuing familial connections over individual achievement.

The preference Harvard awards the children of alumni offers a leg up to those who, in most cases, already started ahead of the pack. The admissions office claims that being the son or daughter of a Harvard alum only guarantees an applicant “an additional look,” a “tip factor,” a “thumb on the scale.” But that very heavy thumb translates into a chance of admission, according to research, that is roughly three times higher than the norm.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how much of the differential comes from legacy consideration and how much comes from qualifications that legacy applicants may have in spades. Legacy students have the opportunity to grow up in the bosom of the educational elite until they are old enough to become the elite themselves: In 2014, Harvard graduates reported among the highest-paying mid-careers in the country.

These privileged positions, in most cases, can help parents guide their children through the college application process, either with personal help or with paid support. This aid can lead to stellar test scores from expensive SAT and ACT tutoring, carefully pruned Common Applications and supplements from savvy college counselors, and the good word of a well-respected and established secondary school. If legacy students have these merits—regardless of where they came from—they should be, and oftentimes are, capable of getting into Harvard without systematic support.

The question of merit is not an easy one to answer. But for the purposes of college admissions, merit should measure what one does with the cards he or she has been dealt. Bright kids may have won the genetic lottery, and yet a superlative IQ does not guarantee matching grades or scores. Athletic kids may also have come out on top, and yet the potential to lift vast amounts or run vast distances means little without hours spent in the weight room or on the track. A Harvard legacy, however, does exactly the same thing at birth as it does 18 years later during application season, and no hard work need take place in the meantime. It is an automatic aid that neither asks for nor expects effort, dedication, or goodwill.

Harvard justifies legacy preference primarily with platitudes. The aim, the administration says, is to create a community that spans generations. The aim, in reality, is to create a community that donates money. The most compelling argument for continued legacy preference is an economic one: alumni are more likely to donate if they believe their contributions will help their children, and their children’s children, one day to walk through Johnston Gate.

Indeed, any school needs a robust fundraising program to thrive. Still, universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its California counterpart maintain an active alumni community without promising parents a concrete benefit to their generosity. There is no reason a school like Harvard—with an unparalleled endowment and an established system for carrying out effective financial campaigns—should prove unable to achieve on the same level as the MIT or Caltech, even without legacy preference as a donatory motivator.

Taken together, these considerations make clear that an admissions preference for the children of alumni offers only a marginal benefit to Harvard, and at the expense of justness and transparency.

The admissions system as a whole has flaws, ones that make it far easier for someone who has had the right tutoring and has gone to the right high school to get into Harvard than someone who entered the game with a worse hand. Getting rid of legacy preference, surely, will not fix these problems.

That is why some might allege that crusading to remove the advantage is naive. How does this policy lead to real change? Shouldn’t we focus on broader problems—income inequality, educational disparities, racial injustice? Isn’t simply eliminating the legacy preference a Band-Aid solution to the bullet-hole wound of Harvard’s lack of diversity?

Such criticisms are simply misguided. Harvard can and must work to address larger problems of socioeconomic injustice, and it should do so knowing that such injustice actively shapes its classes. And yet the legacy advantage not only makes for an ethical embarrassment in Agassiz House; it also affects the everyday interactions of students on campus, from dining hall dinners to Friday night festivities. By removing the legacy policy now, Harvard can change its institutional culture in hugely important ways.

As it currently stands, Harvard projects a message of exclusivity. We’ve come a long way since quotas and no financial aid. But in giving legacy applicants an advantage, Harvard does not merely acknowledge injustice as part of the world—it endorses it. The College effectively says that, given two otherwise equal applicants, it will take the child of privilege because Harvard values privilege. This is unconscionable. And it is unwise to think that such a message does not present tangible effects in students’ daily lives.

It is enough that a vast and visible contingent of Harvard students arrive on campus seemingly with the key to success already in the pockets of their dark-wash jeans. It is enough that these students gain access to social spaces unavailable to many of their peers right off the bat—the Hasty Pudding social club freshman year, final clubs the next, and whatever else comes in between. It is enough that these students can afford to comp any organization they desire without worrying about work-study jobs, or that they can say "yes" to dinner in the Square any evening without fretting over keeping sufficient funds in their bank accounts. But it is far more than enough that Harvard gives its institutional stamp of approval to wealth over worthiness and prestige over personality.

Eliminating legacy preference would not mean eliminating legacies, nor should it: These students, like all members of our community, pursue rich and varied activities on campus. But applicants who already have an edge in admissions do not need and do not deserve a handicap.

Harvard’s legacy preference is, in the simplest terms, wrong. It takes opportunities from those with less and turns them over to those who have more. It lends legitimacy to the entrenched and insidious campus tendency to give affluence an unmistakable social cachet. Removing legacy preference, surely, will not cause a sea of change at the College. Harvard will still suffer from a culture of elitism, and each Harvard student will still suffer from its implications. More pervasive tweaks to the admissions process may help with some issues of socioeconomic justice on campus. Other issues need work after admission, on the campus ground, for any change to occur.

Without legacy preference, things will not be perfect, and they may not even be close. But just because something will not be perfect does not mean we should not strive to make it better. A Harvard without legacy preference would, without question, be a better Harvard.