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HKS Student Spearheads Alumni Donations Boycott Against Legacy Admissions

Legacy preference has long been a standard practice for admissions at elite institutions, including Harvard.
Legacy preference has long been a standard practice for admissions at elite institutions, including Harvard. By Camille G. Caldera
By Vivi E. Lu and Dekyi T. Tsotsong, Crimson Staff Writers

An organization that advocates for first-generation, low-income students led by Harvard Kennedy School student Viet A. Nguyen launched a campaign to boycott alumni donations until universities to stop considering applicants’ legacy status as a factor in the college admissions process.

First envisioned by the organization, EdMobilizer, as an annual conference to unite and empower first-generation and low-income students, the #LeaveYourLegacy campaign has taken on an additional mission under Nguyen’s leadership: to end legacy preference in admissions.

“How do we use our voice within this ivory tower to push for change?” said Nguyen, a student from a low-income background who attended Brown and is now completing a joint degree at Stanford Business School and the Kennedy School.

“You only hear from folks who are very big donors who are very excited to pass on the legacy preferences, even though I’m willing to bet that the majority of folks would be fine getting rid of it,” Nguyen said. “This campaign was really to mobilize that silent majority — to voice their thoughts to the boards who have the power to make this decision.”

College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.

Legacy preference has long been a standard practice for admissions at elite institutions.

In fact, a recent Crimson survey found that 15.5 percent of the College’s Class of 2025 reported legacy status, defined as having one or more parents who attended the College.

Gabriel Reyes — a FGLI doctoral student at Stanford and EdMobilizer advisory board member — said admitting students based on legacy status is “insidious.”

“It always means that first-gen applicants are at a disadvantage,” Reyes said. “To know that these schools feel like they are at the mercy of a very small percentage of people that have wealth, for lack of a better word, is pathetic.”

“It feels like a constant reminder that as a first-gen, I often have to work harder than some of my most privileged peers,” he added. “Even if I work twice as hard, I still will have barriers that I just can’t overcome because of practices like this, which aim to further advantage people who already have a leg-up in the process.”

Evan J. Mandery ’89, a law professor at John Jay College who authored a 2014 op-ed in The Crimson calling for an end to legacy preferences, said universities maintain consideration of legacy status to “stimulate fundraising” from alumni donations — a practice EdMobilizer’s boycott directly targets.

“There is no evidence whatsoever of any link between legacy preference and giving,” Mandery said. “There have been several studies that have shown that there is no correlation, and some schools which have moved away from legacy preference show no drop in giving – MIT is a notable example.”

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Julie A. Reuben said for a more representative study body, universities should institute other policies rather than removing legacy preferences alone.

“You could get rid of legacy and still admit students from the very top of the economic structure, from only the very most restrictive suburbs or expensive private schools – you can still have that be your student profile without having legacy,” Reuben said. “It’s not the legacy itself that will change the structure of the classes.”

Nguyen acknowledged the difficulty of eliminating a long-standing policy.

“We’re also not naive – this practice has been around for centuries. And so what we’re trying to do is make as much noise as possible, do what we can within our power to not stay silent,” Nguyen said. “The more that we can speak out, the more that we can keep this momentum going.”

“At the end of the day, we care more about justice and equity than about passing on this privilege to our children,” Nguyen added.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Dekyi T. Tsotsong can be reached at dekyi.tsotsong@thecrimson.com.

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CollegeCollege AdministrationHarvard Kennedy SchoolAdmissionsCollege NewsFront Middle Feature

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