I am the seventh person in my family to attend Princeton. The surprise that comes across many faces when they hear this from a black woman cuts down my embarrassment a bit. But not nearly all of it. I have benefited from a system that perpetuates tokenism and the myth of American exceptionalism. That’s an embarrassing fact.
A few weeks ago, Agatha Advincula, a legacy student at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a column proclaiming her pride in her “Penn heritage.” While celebrating her family and coming out of “hiding,” she argued that prestigious schools need legacy students to maintain their “brands” and benefit from “philanthropy.”
I do not go to Penn. I can’t speak to Advincula’s experience, but I can say that I do not feel targeted or shunned for being a Princeton student who “got in the easy way.” Rather, at an undergraduate institution of roughly 5,200 students, I am in the company of at least 728 other children of alumni.
Advincula claims that legacies are necessary to the financial and intellectual security of elite schools such as Penn. The same does not hold for Princeton. The University does not need us, and it should not continue to privilege us.
Backed by nearly 250 years of lauded scholarship and the nation’s largest endowment per student, Princeton does not need legacies to maintain its standing. Though legacy status should not detrimentally affect a student’s application, it should not increase an applicant’s chances of admission nearly fourfold, from 7 to 30 percent.
Advincula was right to say that colleges are like businesses. Yet, money is no longer an object at universities like Penn and Princeton. These universities hardly need tuition, never mind donations, any more. In 2016, Harvard University briefly toyed with the idea of getting rid of tuition fees for everyone. While the idea didn’t pan out, one message rang loud and clear: top schools have enough money.
And they will have no problem securing substantial donations (donations that they really do not need) as long as the majority of students continue to hail from wealthy backgrounds, legacy or not. When Advincula boasts that admitting legacies “reinforces a narrative of prestige all within the context of a Penn education,” she is turning a blind eye to the unique socioeconomic context of the education system in this country.
In order to get to a school like Penn and Princeton, you have to academically excel. That’s difficult to do when two-thirds of schools with high percentages of black and Latino students do not offer calculus. It’s also difficult given the fact that minority and low-income students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers than white and higher-income students.
In general, minority and low-income students are underserved by America’s public schools, and few have access to the private schools feeding students into colleges like Penn and Princeton. From the school-to-prison pipeline to enormous lapses in funding, many Americans have been failed by the American education system. Education systems have long sought to serve certain communities more than others — and legacies are part of that privileged circle.
The truth Advincula leaves out is that as children of college-educated parents, we were set on an easier path from the start. Our parents read to us. Our parents encouraged us to participate in extracurricular activities. Our parents had high expectations of us. All of these behaviors indicate socioeconomic factors that directly contribute to one’s success in school and on standardized testing.
Stigma surrounding legacies is not simply based on the assumption that we are stupid or underqualified. The negativity comes out of resentment for a broken system.
I’ve learned about the challenges in American education from data, not personal experience. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I loved my private elementary school, private secondary school, and now Princeton.
When my cousin, Princeton grad number four, came to campus a few weeks ago for Thrive, an event celebrating black alumni, I was proud to take her on her first cookie run to Murray Dodge, and I loved laughing with her as she reminisced on the fun nights she had in my entry hall. When my dad, Princeton grad number two, came for parents’ weekend a week later, we walked the perimeter of campus as he met my friends. He told me stories of the Third World Center, and we discussed the new Woodrow Wilson statue. Having him here was one of my favorite days I’ve had on this campus, and it was special sharing it with someone of the Class of 1977.
I don’t feel a need to hide these details, but I don’t lead with them, either. The college admissions process is so extreme — from celebrities committing fraud to students rising from poverty to an Ivy League school — that you really never know who you’re going to be sitting next to and how they got here. Navigating this unbalanced yet still diverse playing field is tricky — a couple of insensitive comments or assumptions I’ve made are replaying in my head now — but I think it’s for the best that we are forced to grow out of our own spheres and learn what to share and when.
To a certain degree, I share the personal pride Advincula describes, but not the belief that legacies should be the underpinnings of a school’s culture and community. Her way of thinking is phasing out — slower than molasses, though. Sixteen percent of students of the Class of 2023 are the first in their families to attend college, while 14 percent of students are children of alumni. That’s a small but positive step for the University — one more important than ensuring that generations of families can have photoshoots and pass down faded sweatshirts.
No one chooses where they are from, and everyone should have pride in their family and accomplishments. But you should know how your story relates to historical and systemic factors before sulking in self-pity and celebrating elitism.
Our way was easier, and it shouldn’t have been. When Advincula writes, “Legacy is part of the fabric at elite institutions,” she’s right, for now. I think universities should double down on their effort to unravel racist and classist systems of inequity. Admitting fewer legacies may be a way to start, and Princeton should not be afraid to do so. Don’t worry, money and prestige are here to stay.
Rachel Kennedy is a junior from Dedham, Mass. She can be reached at email@example.com.