Legacy’s Last Leg

On the undermining guilt of the preference

Faye Yan Zhang

At this point, after scores of op-eds about legacy, most of us know how the argument goes.

Legacy preference in admissions serves as a “tie-breaker” between qualified candidates, favoring students who are the children of alumni. Such a preference goes against the University’s commitment to diversity on campus.  Therefore, we should abolish legacy.

The argument comes with numbers. As Reina Gattuso mentions in her recent column: “37 percent of current undergrads whose parent(s) went here come from households with incomes over $500,000 a year, at the national top one percent for household income.”

The argument also has estimates. One estimate found that, in the 2010-2011 school year, about 45 percent of Harvard students came from families that earn more than $200,000 a year. Only about four percent came from families in the bottom quintile of U.S. incomes. Legacies students tend to be more affluent. So getting rid of legacy may be a good first step to making up for this disparity.

And to top it off, the argument has research. Studies have shown that legacy preference has no statistically significant effect on alumni giving. Plus, schools that dropped legacy preference in recent years saw no significant effect on alumni donations.


But there’s a problem with this argument: it makes too much sense. Because it sticks to things like facts, it misses the most common and powerful counter-argument from legacy and non-legacy students alike. That counter-argument goes something like this: “It’s a nice thing to do.”

A lot of students are comforted knowing that their kids may have a boost when they apply to Harvard. And, as long as legacy remains merely a “tie-breaker” between qualified candidates, its downsides can’t be too bad, right? After all, Harvard is a private institution. It can “do nice things” for its alumni. So what’s the big deal in having a “tie-breaker”? Most of the legacy kids are surely qualified anyway. Thinking practically, it makes no sense that students would want to change this policy if their future kids have something to gain.

And just like that, with a hand wave, all those numbers from the beginning of this column fade into a soft-focus memory of Harvard Yard, steeped in tradition, in bloom on a nice spring day.

But, as a student who applied with legacy on both sides of my family, I’m in a privileged position to address this counter-argument—in addition to being in a privileged position in general. And, to me, the conception of legacy as a “nice thing” isn’t so clear-cut.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “You have legacy and you might actually complain that having it was not a ‘nice thing’ for you? Go f*ck yourself, you privileged piece of sh*t.”

I know, I know. But hear me out.

The answer to whether or not having legacy was a “nice thing” for me depends on whether or not I could have gotten into Harvard without it. 

Having legacy does come with a good dose of guilt, as you can see from my self-aware move to include that made-up quote above. I’m not going to pretend this guilt is awful enough to ruin the Harvard experience. For most other legacy students I know, it’s more of an afterthought. But still, it’s hard to get over the fact that I’m a “privileged piece of sh*t” in my own mind, no matter how high my grades or SAT score were.

So it all comes down to a hypothetical. Could I have gotten in if Harvard didn’t use legacy? Let’s consider the two possible answers:

1. No: In this case, since the guilt isn’t strong enough to “ruin my Harvard experience,” getting in because of legacy would have been a “nice thing” for me.