Dude, Why the Legacy Preference?

End legacy preference, increase equity of access

Here are some numbers that keep me up at night: According to The Crimson’s Class of 2018 Freshman Survey, more Harvard students come from households with incomes in the national top 2.5 percent than the entire bottom 70 percent.

Holy shit.

If you’re not already freaking out about that fact, you should probably start. Harvard makes elites, it changes lives, it provides unparalleled proximity to boat shoes. It’s also got a socioeconomic diversity problem. This problem isn’t Harvard-specific; inequity in educational access is a huge structural thing, and the initiatives Harvard’s already got in place to counter it are pretty sweet. But there are a hell of a lot of things we could be doing to make this place more accessible. Right now, I want to focus on one of them: Why don’t we eliminate legacy preference in admissions?

I don’t know about you, but talking about legacy preference makes me feel weird, like on an existential level. I think the legacy conversation often feels like a referendum on who “deserves” to be here. If your parent(s) went to Harvard, critiques of legacy preference can feel like an attack on you, rather than on a policy. That sucks. And if your parents didn’t go here, a reminder that you have no ancestral claim to this space can reinforce all those “WTF is Harvard” feelings. But it’s precisely this anxiety that makes legacy preference such an important thing to talk about—and do away with.

Let’s be explicit about the link between socioeconomic diversity and legacy preference in admissions. There are a lot of affluent people who didn’t go to Harvard, and a lot of Harvard grads who aren’t affluent. But by and large, Harvard grads are likely to be pretty wealthy: The median mid-career salary of a Harvard graduate is $119,000, at the top five percent of American individual incomes. And 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. By giving an “extra look” at applicants with Harvard-educated parents, the admissions office privileges a demographic whose access to things like cello lessons, SAT tutoring, and clown school already makes them great Harvard candidates. I think we all feel pretty weird about that.


So why do we have legacy preference in the first place? The argument goes something like this: Legacy preference is necessary to not only upholding the tradition of the institution, but also vital to maintaining the kinds of alumni donations that fund our daily swai. Wouldn’t abolishing legacy preference, then, decrease scholarship money, and shoot the whole economic-inclusivity thing in the foot? Turns out, not really: As far as we can tell, there isn’t really a correlation between legacy preference and alumni giving.  And MIT, which doesn’t practice legacy preference, has an equal—if not better—alumni giving rate to Harvard.

So the argument is wrong. But it’s also just plain annoying. It’s the ethical equivalent of saying: Hey, people on financial aid! You can only be here because the rich people decided to be generous, not because you’re rad and everyone should get a great education. And the rich people will stop caring about your scholarships if they’re not getting something cool in return. This devalues pretty much everyone. Alums who really believe in accessibility. Children of alums, who may wonder whether they got in because of their SAT scores and clowning abilities or because of their parents. And the majority of undergraduates who are on financial aid, including students whose parents went here, who are made to feel like we’re here on someone’s largesse, and not because inability to pay should never be a barrier to education.

Here’s the other thing: Eliminating legacy preference in admissions isn’t that contentious. Seventy five percent of Americans think it’s a good idea, which is probably more than the amount of Americans that can agree the moon landing happened. And it shouldn’t be that hard to do, if we can only make enough noise to get the institution to do it. There are already peer institutions, like MIT and Caltech, that do just fine without legacy preference. And there are people here starting to organize around the issue: I’m fired up enough about it to be part of the Harvard Legacy Project, a group of people who think this could happen, and soon. Even all four of the tickets in the recent UC elections supported eliminating legacy preference in admissions, making the issue less controversial than Ava and Dhruv’s puns.

I think at the end of the day, part of why it’s tricky to talk about legacy preference on this campus is because we’re idealistic. We want equity of access. We want equity of access real bad. We want equity of access like my high school self wanted that boy whose favorite book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And the fact that this thing exists that means certain people get a leg up because their parents were lucky—that makes everyone feel bad. So let’s change it. Eliminating legacy preference in admissions isn’t going to fix the whole equity of access thing immediately, but it’s a really fucking good start.

Reina A.E. Gattuso ‘15, an FM editor, is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.


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