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When it comes to kicking the unfair “extra look” colleges give to legacy applicants, Harvard is falling behind, and its peers are taking the lead. Just last Wednesday, Amherst College announced that it will be doing away with legacy admissions — joining the ranks of schools such as Caltech and MIT, who already do not consider legacy status.
It doesn’t take much to recognize that the Harvard admissions process is grossly competitive — after all, the acceptance rate for the Class of 2025 was a staggering low of 3.43 percent. The children of alumni have excelled in this hypercompetitive environment. Between 2014 and 2019, the acceptance rate for legacies, 33 percent, dwarfed Harvard’s overall acceptance rate of only 6 percent.
It’s not hard to guess why. For starters, the children of Harvard alumni are disproportionately wealthy; nearly a third of legacy freshmen hail from half-a-million dollar households. Standardized tests such as the SAT have been shown to correlate strongly with applicants’ household income (thanks in part to eager parents and pricey tutors, the wealthier the student, the better the score). And the ability to participate in extracurriculars that colleges salivate over can oftentimes depend on nothing more than the thickness of your parents’ wallets. Not to mention, being reared by the educational elite is probably conducive to the cultivation of academic talent, which college admissions rightly rewards.
The preposterousness of the tie-breaking boost children of alumni get is magnified once we recognize just how much legacy applicants already benefit from the outsize wealth and inside knowledge they enter college applications with. Piling on an extra advantage on the basis of this preexisting privilege is strikingly unjust.
In elevating the privileged, legacy preference actively disadvantages minority and first-generation college students. Harvard did not start admitting Black students into the College in large numbers until the 1970s. Harvard Medical School’s first Black mother-daughter legacy admit only graduated in 2005, and Harvard Business School’s only came in 2006. And of course, first-generation college students stand to benefit nothing from legacy admissions.
Given the financial resources legacies disproportionately grow up with, and the familiarity with the College and its application process with which many approach their Common App, it is unlikely that abolishing legacy admissions would remotely threaten the presence of alumni children on campus. More likely than not, the children of Harvard alumni would continue to have higher chances of being admitted when compared to the general public. After all, the tradition of legacy admissions is only a symptom of the inequalities surrounding higher education — not its root cause.
So, if abolishing legacy preference would still leave intact the substantial other advantages enjoyed by children of Harvard alumni, why does the University cling so tightly to the widely panned practice? For what other reason would the University be upholding a system that almost exclusively privileges the wealthy and white? The argument that the University has put forth comes down to money: alumni donate more if they know their children are given extra consideration, irrespective of their abilities. That cash, in turn, allows Harvard to further its educational mission.
These economic arguments, which might satisfy our tit-for-tat intuition, fall flat in the face of rigorous research which finds “no causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.” Moreso, Harvard possesses the largest academic endowment fund of any university in the world. Are we really to believe that the financial security this $53 billion dollar monument affords us would crumble without the mythical “boost” in donations legacy preference provides?
Consider this: What does Harvard have to offer as a result of its legacy preference that peer institutions such as MIT do not? The only answer we can come up with is more unjust admissions.
Admission to a place like Harvard, or any of its peer institutions, comes with the hope of social mobility for many students. But so long as the practice of legacy admissions prevails, this potential will be short-circuited. Children of Harvard alumni surely have many talents to offer the College on their own. The fact that legacy policies allow for such students to be preferenced in an admissions toss-up between them and an equal but less advantaged applicant makes our heads spin.
Harvard bucking its legacy policy has enormous potential to make college admissions writ large more equitable. We have seen time and time again — most recently with the University’s decision to divest from fossil fuels, after which no less than eight other universities divested — that other universities look to Harvard to guide their own decision making. Our friends to the west at Amherst, and across the river at MIT, are leading the charge. Harvard could be a powerful ally.
Our Editorial Board has often turned over lofty questions of what admittance to Harvard really means, and how students ought to spend their time here. But since 2015, we have stood firm on one thing we believe a Harvard education shouldn’t be: inheritable.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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