All In the Family

The benefits of ‘legacy preference’ have yet to be determined

Media commentators have once again renewed their focus on the tradition at schools such as Harvard of giving preference to students with a family connection to the institution. While it admits to the practice of slightly favoring “legacies,” Harvard has long argued that supporting the legacy tradition helps maintain an active alumni base and encourages donations. However, the administration needs to do more to back up its argument, and should launch a new study to reevaluate whether this practice actually benefits Harvard’s relationship with alumni. If such a study, hard as it may be to conduct, concludes that legacies offer no discernible benefit to the College, this preference ought to be eliminated.

Proponents of the legacy tradition argue, perhaps correctly, that this continuity helps bind alumni to the institution long after they have graduated and may be living across the world. A vibrant alumni network does help the institution in valuable ways—especially with recruiting new students—in addition to the benefits of graduates’ financial commitment to their alma mater. If giving alumni’s children a slight advantage in admissions helps keep this network attached and enthusiastic, then Harvard should maintain this approach. We believe that a study might point to whether such logic is, in fact, accurate.

Since Harvard does not judge applicants using a point system, we hope that such a study be conducted without depending on numerical methods. It remains very difficult to tell how much help legacy status actually affords, since children of alumni may also stand a better chance of getting into Harvard for reasons other than their legacy status.

Above all, Harvard should admit students based on academic merit and other forms of recognizable achievement. Since legacy status does not fit within either of those categories, it should not add to a student’s candidacy unless perpetuating this policy actually benefits the University as a whole. Such benefit can be defined beyond simple monetary measures. For instance, the presence of legacies in our academic environment may help the undergraduate body feel more connected with the history of Harvard, adding to the sense of community across generations.

Although we remain unsure whether providing legacy preference is actually worthwhile for the College, we do not agree with those who argue that it should be admissions offices’ job to equalize society. Instead, Harvard should create the academic environment it sees as best. That being said, we hope that the College reevaluates its stance toward admissions by studying the realities of legacy preference and acting accordingly.



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