The ‘status’ quo: The history of college legacies

Maya Winger

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A student receives an email from their dream school. It’s a highly competitive institution, and they know the chances of acceptance are low, but they have done their research and worked hard to maintain their high grade point average (GPA) for the past four years. With shaky hands, the student opens the email to find the worst sequence of words strung together, permanently affecting their future. “We regret to inform you….” Slamming their laptop shut, they close their eyes. Suddenly, another notification pings, this time from a friend whose dad happened to go to their dream school. Their friend got in, even though they had similar personal essays, grades and test scores. This is most likely because of legacy admissions; according to College Transitions, about 75 percent of the top 100 ranked colleges still take into account today.

Illustration by Carsen Goltz

As stated by NPR, the college legacy system has been around for nearly 100 years, but many do not know that it is rooted in racism and ideas of white supremacy. According to The Conversation, several universities in North America started admitting legacies into their admissions process because they wanted to maintain a higher concentration of white students, and legacies were a non-explicit way of excluding people of color and other minorities. 

However, college legacies still exist today for a different reason, and the main motivation is related to finances. According to The Atlantic, wealthy alumni tend to donate more money to their schools; therefore legacy admissions serve as a further incentive for those alumni to continue donating. However, The Atlantic conducted a study on seven schools which proved that when some universities stopped legacy admissions, the effect on alumni donations was not significant, as it did not make or break the schools’ financial situations. 

There are two different types of legacies: primary and secondary. A primary legacy is someone whose parents went to the school they are applying to. A secondary legacy means that one of the student’s other relatives went there, such as an aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather. According to College Transitions, “Primary legacy students are 45 percent more likely to be granted admission to selective colleges than non-legacy students and secondary legacy students are 13 percent more likely to get in.”

Ellie Kemos, a junior and primary legacy at Yale and Oxford, expressed how some legacies may not deserve the advantages they receive from their parents.

“I don’t think the legacy system is fair, because [students] aren’t [their] parents. There could be parents [who] worked really hard to get into schools, and [their children] would have this better opportunity based [on] them … I don’t think that’s fair,” Kemos said.

According to CNBC, many schools are beginning to stop taking legacy status into account. These schools include Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California, Berkeley and Oxford. 

“[College acceptance] shouldn’t be a process of who seems like they should fit in there, but a process of who really would, based on [their achievements], not their family.”

— Lulu Bodle

However, legacies are still heavily considered in the application process of other schools, as stated on many Ivy League university websites. The Cornell website states, “…when two students with similar, strong credentials apply to Cornell, the applicant who is a direct descendant of a Cornell University alumni may have a slight advantage in the admissions process.” Additionally, a recent Bark survey showed that 33 percent of students are primary legacies at Ivy League schools, which is one more aspect that adds to Redwood’s competitive nature. This could be seen as a disadvantage to many students, such as first-generation students who do not have increased chances of admission like legacy students.

Junior Cece Wiener, a secondary legacy at Columbia University, described her frustration with the legacy system, despite being a legacy herself.

“[The legacy system] is nepotism because some people are first-generation college students and they don’t have that advantage, or they have to try a lot harder to get into college. There are people who aren’t trying as hard and can just get into [a college] based on their parents. I don’t think that’s fair,” Wiener said.

When looking at family achievements, some students may feel stressed about the pressure placed on them to do well in school, like Wiener may be under more stress to get into prestigious universities due to their families.

“I do feel pressure from my dad because his sisters were so high-achieving,” Wiener said, referring to her aunt who graduated from Columbia and is now a lawyer, and her other aunt who is a senior manager for a real estate firm and College of New Jersey alumni.

Illustration by Carsen Goltz

Even though there are outside resources – such as personal college counselors and college visits – that students can use to gain advantages in the college process, Wiener still believes that this is not enough to receive the same advantages primary legacies receive.

“[My] college counselor has helped me know more about the application process, I don’t think it’s as much of an advantage to getting into college as a primary legacy. I think it’s more of an advantage [for] knowing what to do [about college],” Wiener said.

Lulu Bodle, a student who is not a legacy at a prestigious school, also touched on the fact that legacies not only have the advantage of increased chance of admission, but also knowledge from their relatives about the college application process.

“People who [are legacies] at prestigious schools have someone in their household who is familiar with the college application process and [know influential] people who [can] help you. Whereas, if you don’t have someone like that in your family, it can be hard if that’s what you’re aiming for … I can imagine how someone whose dream school [is] an Ivy League would be disappointed that their family couldn’t help more with that,” Bodle said.

Bodle also alluded to the fact that colleges may not be as holistic as they claim to be.

“I feel like [it’s an] unfair system because colleges pride themselves on being unbiased when looking at applicants, regardless of their social standing or parents’ education status,” Bodle said, “[College acceptance] shouldn’t be a process of who seems like they should fit in there, but a process of who really would, based on [their achievements], not their family.”