Privileging the Privileged

Harvard College admissions should eliminate legacy preferences

In a few days, 4,245 anxious applicants to the Harvard College class of 2016 will receive their admissions decisions. For the first time since the 2006-2007 academic year, these applicants signaled their interest to Harvard by November rather than January, thereby potentially securing a spot at the College and curtailing the ever-dreadful admissions process. In my time at Harvard, I have often wondered what the final days of an admissions cycle look like. I imagine officers are now sizing up comparable candidates: Who has made the most of his 17 or 18 years on earth and his resources throughout high school? Who will most contribute to Harvard’s community and best capitalize on the opportunities on this campus?

Harvard’s short-lived hiatus from Early Action was founded on the belief that an early admissions cycle disadvantaged individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Perhaps this break has improved socioeconomic diversity here. Or maybe Harvard lost strong applicants to other institutions, most of which kept their early programs. Harvard’s decision to reinstate its early program was rooted in fear of the latter scenario. Barring a study of this admissions experiment, however, we cannot entirely judge its successes or failures.

But the spirit of this decision was laudable. As Harvard reintroduces early admissions, it should seek additional ways to increase access for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. One way the admissions office could do so is by abolishing policies that privilege children of alumni, or legacies. Harvard should pursue this option. The admissions office should not consider legacy status as a criterion for admittance.

Harvard has done an admirable job of making the College an option for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Its outstanding financial aid program continually improves the affordability of a Harvard education. Current admissions practices ensure that Harvard is more diverse and accessible than the Harvard of our parents’ generation. (I should state that my own parents met as students here.) But by admitting legacy students at the expense of others, Harvard runs the risk of perpetuating inequalities resulting from educational disparities between applicants’ parents. This policy privileges the already advantaged. On average, legacies come from highly educated families and have better access to financial capital, networks, and other opportunities than most non-legacy students. Harvard alumni may know how to game the admissions process better than other parents. If, despite all of these resources, children of alumni still cannot gain admission on their own merit, it is illogical and unethical to offer them a spot based on their legacy status.

As Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85 of The Century Foundation has pointed out, legacy preferences are not a mere tiebreaker between equally capable candidates. Legacy status increases an applicant’s chance of admission by 19.7 percent for a given SAT score range. At the California Institute of Technology, which does not favor legacy applicants, legacies make up a mere 1.5 percent of the student body. At Harvard, 12-13 percent of students are legacies. Obviously, by virtue of having a Harvard-educated parent, legacies may be better qualified than the average high school senior. But it is safe to assume that more legacy students make the admissions cut than deserve it.

Legacies preferences probably reflect Harvard’s legitimate desire to increase alumni donations and improve graduates’ connection to the school. But as Kahlenberg reports, Chad Coffman of Winnemac Consulting recently published a study that found no “causal relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities.” Higher levels of giving at institutions with legacy preferences resulted from those schools’ overall wealthier alumni communities, rather than the institutions’ admissions policies themselves. Moreover, schools that removed legacy preferences policies experienced “no measurable reduction in alumni giving.” Even still, alumni donations to Harvard in particular may be tied to such admissions practices. But the added value of admitting otherwise unqualified legacies is unjustifiable through a donation-centric lens alone, especially as the admissions office aims to increase access to Harvard.

The students who replaced legacy admits would not singlehandedly eliminate socioeconomic inequality at Harvard. The application process may always favor students with financial and other resources—individuals who can afford conservatory dance lessons or interesting trips abroad and who know that such experiences will make them stronger candidates for admission. Moreover, some applicants who would receive a spot at Harvard if legacy preferences were abolished may be children of Yale or Stanford or Williams alumni. They might have benefited from backgrounds similar to those of Harvard legacy counterparts, but their admission may come at the expense of students whose families have proved their loyalty here. But for the students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds who might not otherwise gain a coveted spot at Harvard—a place that combines unparalleled educational opportunities with superlative financial aid—the admissions office cannot justify legacy preferences. For applicants to Harvard, a hard-earned acceptance letter is more valuable than any donation could ever be.

Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.


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