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Princeton admissions: legacy

Princeton is one of the most selective undergraduate colleges in the world. That is guaranteed, as there are more students who want to attend than spaces. The criteria by which Princeton decides who is allowed to be a Tiger and who is not are not set in stone. In this column, part two of a three part series on admissions, I will examine legacy. The first column explored early admissions, and the final column will discuss athletics.

Legacy in admissions is a truly bizarre concept, when considered in depth. Legacy admissions are when a university values one’s familial history of attending the university. At Princeton, 14.5 percent of the Class of 2020 is legacy students.

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We are told that we live in a meritocracy. Of course, this is a lie. Anyone who has ever applied for an internship understands that who you know is just as important as what you know. Nevertheless, Princeton, and higher education in general, thrives on the idea of meritocracy. Creating the sensation of meritocracy is no doubt a part of why we all had to fill out lengthy applications, stress over SAT scores, and meet with alumni interviewers. We had to show that we had enough merit to attend Princeton.

The meritocracy is inextricably linked to the commonly-held value of individualism. The concept that a person should be judged by who they are, and not who their family is, or where they come from, is central to a liberal arts education. The University is a place where each student can expand to meet their full potential. Such an ideal requires that each student’s potential be measured against what they can achieve, not what their family has already achieved.

Where, then, does legacy fit into the meritocracy? The relevance of my mother or grandfather’s alma mater (or lack thereof) on my merit as an individual is tenuous at best. From the University’s point of view, the value of the legacy system is simple. The University likes multigenerational Princeton families because it feels that those families are more likely to donate. Perhaps they are correct. It seems reasonable that if many members of the same family are Princetonians, then that family is more likely to give.

The University, despite having a larger endowment per student than any other university, is still money obsessed. Two pages on President Eisgruber’s State of the University letter were dedicated to fundraising. Clearly, maintaining a high rate of donations is critical to the University. But it should not abandon the ideal of individualism in the pursuit of self.

Legacy, however, does not attack meritocracy and individualism evenly across the student body. It harms some students much more than others. This is because not all students have the same historical connection to the University, the kind of connection that makes legacy admissions advantageous.

With a few exceptions, Princeton did not integrate along racial lines to any real degree until after World War II. The University only began accepting women in 1969. Legacy admissions are a way of keeping the University looking like it did decades ago: full of wealthy white people.

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This aspect of legacy admissions is impossible to ignore. By now, there are Princetonians of color whose parents attended the University, but there are far fewer students of color with a history at Princeton comparable to that of many of their white peers.

Data on race at Princeton is surprisingly difficult to find. The earliest data the University has available on the undergraduate body makeup is from 1993. That data lists a category called “American minorities” (international students are a separate category). The American minorities category “Includes African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and native American students,” which in total made up 22 percent of the student body.

Contrast this with the current data: 52 percent of undergraduate students are non-white, although that number includes international students, so it is not directly comparable. That enormous jump tells a story of a university that, despite many flaws, is gradually becoming more representative of the country and the world, and not just of the kinds of students who were admitted decades ago. But legacy slows down this progress.

The University very much enjoys having legacy admissions. There is something nice about seeing multigenerational Tiger families at reunions. The increase in donations, while not quantifiable, is likely quite significant. But the very concept of legacy admissions flies in the face of individualism and meritocracy. Princeton should accept students based on what they have accomplished, not based on the accomplishments of their families.

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Beni Snow is a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Newton Center, Mass. He can be reached at bsnow@princeton.edu.

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