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Amherst College’s recent decision to abolish its legacy admissions has justifiably been met with cheerful enthusiasm. The college’s president finally admitted that the long-standing practice of giving preference to children of alumni in admissions “limits educational opportunity,” even as the dean of admissions declared that the college wanted to be a leader “in policies and programs that support access and equality.”
Amherst’s decision puts it on a small but growing list of elite private colleges (MIT, Caltech, Pomona, and Johns Hopkins also no longer have legacy preference in admissions) that do not give children of alumni an unfair leg up during the admissions process. In light of this, we are all perhaps thinking about the same perennial question: How long before Harvard decides to do the same?
Amherst’s move is a welcome step toward making higher education more accessible at a time when inequality has been rising for over three decades. Private colleges continue to remain the prerogative of the rich in the US — 38 colleges, including Yale and Princeton, admit more students from the top one percent than the entire bottom 60 percent of America’s income distribution. Harvard economist Raj Chetty has found that children whose parents are in the top one percent of income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college compared to those whose parents are in the bottom quintile.
Legacy admissions is a big part of this inequality problem. A study of 30 elite US colleges from 2011 found that students whose parents graduated from the college were 45 percent more likely to be admitted compared to students without a legacy background. At Harvard, the acceptance rate for legacy students was 33 percent between 2014 and 2019 even though the overall acceptance rate during the same period was less than 6 percent. Most legacy students tend to be white and come from very privileged backgrounds — let’s face it, these students do not need any additional advantage in the admissions process.
Colleges usually make the argument that legacy admissions help in securing crucial donations from alumni, which can then be used to fund financial aid initiatives for low-income students. But empirical studies have shown that there is no meaningful correlation between legacy preference in admissions and alumni giving at top schools in the country.
Some have also argued that legacy admissions is important to maintain a sense of community within the institution. Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard president, has called legacy admissions “integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.” But this kind of talk carries little weight, and in any case, does not justify unfairly privileging legacy students over deserving students from other backgrounds.
This year, Harvard’s endowment soared to $53.2 billion in the midst of a devastating pandemic. The University also ran a budget surplus of $283 million in the last fiscal year that ended in June 2021. No other higher education institution in the world comes even close to matching the vast amount of financial resources Harvard has at its disposal. As such, it is unreasonable for Harvard to continue to privilege legacy students in its admissions process. Giving advantage to children of alumni goes against the meritocratic spirit and impedes social mobility. Instead of entrenching already existing inequality, an institution like Harvard should commit more resources to promoting equity and democratizing higher education.
Harvard alumni can play an important role in ensuring that Harvard adopts a fairer admissions system. All Harvard alumni should have an interest in seeing a more just admissions process, and as such, they need to put pressure on Harvard to end its legacy admissions. This could be accomplished through efforts like “Leave Your Legacy,” a national campaign that aims to bring alumni together to pledge against donating to universities with legacy admissions. The alumni should take a decisive stand against the unethical practice of legacy preference that mostly harms first-generation, low-income, and nonwhite students. If Harvard alumni collectively decide to withhold donations to the university until the abolition of legacy admissions, the university will have little choice but to end the unfair admissions policy.
Private universities like Harvard continue to remain the bastions of elitism in a world that celebrates meritocracy and upward social mobility. There is a long way to go before we can make higher education truly accessible, but ending legacy preferences in admissions is a good step in that direction. Harvard should therefore follow Amherst’s lead and abolish its legacy admissions or it will soon find itself on the wrong side of history.
Tarun Timalsina ’22 is an Economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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