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The debate on legacy admissions

Adults congregate in McCosh 50, filling in almost every seat available.
Alumni had the chance to once again return to the famous McCosh 50 as they listened to one of the many Alumni-Faculty Forum discussions.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

The recent end of affirmative action sparked countless debates about the college admissions process, from the merits of class-based affirmative action to the role of the college essay. Yet no subject has received more mixed attention than legacy admissions. 

In a special project, The Daily Princetonian charts the debates about legacy admissions, drawing on different arguments for and against the practice from its inception to the present day.


Tracing the debate across time 

Though reignited by the Supreme Court ruling, the debate over legacy admissions has raged on for years. The practice originated in the early 1900s, as elite schools began to see more qualified immigrant applications, particularly Jewish ones. In response to an influx of qualified Jewish applicants, legacy admissions arose. Peter Jacobs characterized legacy’s inception in Insider in 2013:

“It had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of increasing numbers of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background. This transformation was becoming visible at precisely the time that the nation-wide movement to restrict immigration was gaining momentum, and it was unacceptable to the Anglo-Saxon gentlemen who presided over the Big Three (as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were called by then).”


Modern justifications for legacy admissions have often relied on the argument that the policy today acts as a “tiebreaker” between two equally qualified applicants. In a interview for the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 noted

“We think [legacy is] an important part of who we are as an institution that creates a community that persists long after somebody graduates. Legacy works in our admissions process as a literal tie breaker.”

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Opponents of legacy admissions have cited the high percentage legacy students make up in a class and the fact that a higher proportion of legacy applicants are admitted. Admissions data from Harvard, revealed by the affirmative action case, showed that between 2010 and 2015, legacy applicants had an acceptance rate of 33 percent (compared to the overall rate of 6 percent). The Class of 2022 at Princeton had a legacy admission rate of 31.7 percent.  In the same ‘Inquirer’ interview, Eisgruber stated that “12.5 [percent] of students are children of alumni.” 

The effect of legacy on race

A long-held criticism of legacy admissions is that it has continued in its original mission: keeping elite universities white. In her 2022 Washington Post article, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio Jasmine Harris stated

“The history of racial exclusion means that most legacy students at elite institutions continue to be White. For instance, nearly 70 percent of legacy applicants to Harvard are White. In Harvard’s Class of 2022, 36 percent of those admitted were legacy students. Consequently, the needs and perspectives of White students continue to dominate the campus culture and the formal and informal policies that govern it.”

In the wake of affirmative action being overturned, advocacy groups are suing Harvard over legacy admissions, citing how a significant proportion of legacy students are white students. Their lawsuit includes the same argument:

“The need for the Department of Education to put a stop to this discriminatory practice is particularly acute now that the Supreme Court has severely limited the use of race as a factor in higher education admissions processes, which is expected to have a negative impact on campus diversity. Experts have found that reducing or eliminating Donor and Legacy Preferences enhances diversity in higher education – an interest Harvard has claimed to be of the highest magnitude. The fact is that, if the Donor and Legacy Preferences did not exist, more students of color would be admitted to Harvard.”

Eisgruber has cited the increasing diversity of Princeton’s alumni to suggest that legacy applicants are becoming more diverse as well.  As he said when discussing legacy admissions:

“Our alumni body is increasingly diverse, so we have diversity in our alumni.”

In a 2018 op-ed to the Washington Post, Harvard alumna Ashton Lattimore supported the end of legacy admissions, but also made the point that it would end before the first generations of Ivy Leaguers of color would get the same privilege granted to past white classes:

“While the likely end of affirmative action is a more obvious setback for diversity and racial justice, the potential elimination of legacy preferences would also be a loss for at least some people of color. It’s been only a few decades since we were welcomed into predominantly white colleges and universities in any significant numbers; we’ve had only a generation or two to begin building our own legacies. So for some of us, the moral rightness of ending legacy preferences to create a more equitable admissions process comes with a bittersweet edge: It adds one more thing to the pile of privileges that people of color can’t pass down to our children as easily as untold generations of whites have done.”

Latimore continues, however, by noting that she would still do away with legacy admissions: 

“Much more than I want my son to walk an easier path to the Ivy League, I want a higher-education system that welcomes new and diverse families. Instead of him gaining an advantage on a college application, I’d rather see him inherit a fairer world.”

A necessary economic evil?

Back when she was a senior at Princeton, now-columnist for the Washington Post Catherine Rampell ’07 described legacy admissions as a question of loyalty — and by extension, money: 

“Not only is there an incentive to give money when the school shows loyalty to its alumni, there is also an incentive to stop giving when the school rejects your obviously brilliant kid. Granting extra consideration to a few meritorious legacies diminishes a deterrent to donations [...] It may sound repulsive or cynical to say the school is after money, but even the anti-capitalist snobs out there must acknowledge that money facilitates the school's excellence by sustaining the financial aid pool. Showing slight preference to legacy applicants in admissions limbo is a moral means to a moral end.”

Other accounts have challenged how necessary legacy preferences are to Princeton’s financial success. In a column for the ‘Prince,’ former Head Opinion Editor Rachel Kennedy ’21 argued in 2019 that Princeton has more than enough money:

“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 [...] 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. ”

Many have contested whether legacy admissions serve as good motivations to donate. Writing for The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker breaks down a study tracking alumni giving from 1998 to 2008 at the top 100 universities in the United States:

“The study found “no statistically significant evidence” that legacy preferences themselves make any given alum more likely to donate; instead, the study suggested, they simply allow schools to let in more children of wealthy alumni than they otherwise would. So since those wealthy alumni tend to donate more money, the legacy preference does appear to help colleges’ bottom line. But giving these students higher priority doesn’t seem financially vital: Seven schools tracked in the study did away with legacy preferences and didn’t see any large drop-off in donations, though such a drop-off could conceivably occur over a longer time span.”

Gatekeeping elite circles or increasing entry?

When discussing his school’s decision to end legacy admissions in a 2020 piece for the Atlantic, President of Johns Hopkins University Ronald J. Daniels described higher education as a ladder for underprivileged students. Since many legacy students come from more affluent backgrounds, Daniels notes that their place is a missed opportunity for social mobility:

“Over the past two centuries, higher education has served as America’s most potent engine of social mobility [...] Today, according to the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, a child without a college degree from a family in the lowest income quintile has only a 5 percent chance of moving to the highest quintile. But if that child graduates from one of America’s most selective universities, the odds of making that leap rise to 60 percent [...] [Legacy preference] was impairing our ability to educate qualified and promising students from all backgrounds and to help launch them up the social ladder.”

Writing a response in RealClearEducation, then-senior at NYU Anthony DiMauro claimed that it’s the connections made at elite schools that truly creates this social mobility, and legacy admits contribute to the connections made:

“Putting non-legacy students in contact with legacy students creates social and professional connections that otherwise might never have occurred [...] People from a lower socioeconomic class become entrenched in elite social groups, getting access to networking and benefits of a well-connected and well-resourced professional tent. Rubbing elbows with the likes of the Obamas or Bloombergs may be more influential to the career of a low-income student than the education itself. [...] Legacy admits aren’t an affront to equal opportunity — they’re a boon to it.”

Do legacy students & families increase school spirit?

Beyond their potential for social mobility, a common argument is that legacies can create a stronger, more enthusiastic community. In a 2019 column for the Daily Pennsylvanian, student Agatha Advincula made the case for legacy students as carrying on traditions:

“Legacy is just as closely tied with a school’s spirit and community as it is with its prestige. It is the families with three generations of Penn alumni who show up for football games, pose for pictures in front of the LOVE statue with their children, donate money to express their gratitude for a Penn education, and ultimately hope to send their own kids to Penn after them. That may be you in 30 years.”

In a response in the ‘Prince’, Kennedy reflected on the joy of experiencing Princeton with family members who attended the school. Yet Kennedy argues that despite that, schools should do away with legacy admissions:

“The University does not need us, and it should not continue to privilege us [...] 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. ”

Undermining or representing the system? 

Many view legacy admissions as antithetical to the meritocratic nature of college admissions at elite colleges. The editorial board of The New York Times says as much: 

“Preferential treatment for legacy admissions is anti-meritocratic, inhibits social mobility and helps perpetuate a de facto class system. In short, it is an engine of inequity. Little wonder that it is unpopular with most Americans, yet supported by the affluent who both oversee the college admissions process and are its primary beneficiaries.”

Yet scholars like Daniel Markovits, a law professor at Yale, find fault with meritocracy in the first place, not something to aspire to: 

“The system is rigged. Inequality is as bad as ever. And meritocracy is the culprit [...] economic inequality turns meritocracy into a mechanism by which rich parents can pass their privilege down to their children. No area of household spending is more sensitive to rising incomes than on education, which means inequality warps outcomes. The richest school districts now spend more than twice as much per student per year as middle-class schools, and elite private schools spend up to six times as much. That helps yield higher scores on standardized tests and admissions to more elite universities. Academically, children of elite parents now dramatically outperform middle-class children [...] When meritocratic admissions favor elite applicants, higher education is more like a hurdle than a gateway to social mobility.”

Shamus Khan, Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Princeton, argues in a recent guest contribution to the New York Times that the current system will benefit the wealthy no matter whether or not legacy is admitted. 

“I would be glad to see legacy admissions go. But I don’t imagine getting rid of them would do much to balance the scale in favor of those from historically marginalized and excluded backgrounds. Legacy students are just a tiny proportion of the pool of privileged kids who are rich in symbolic, social and cultural capital. Even without the extra boost legacies currently get, it would be almost impossible to offset the advantages of wealthy families who can pay for all the experiences and qualities that make their children seem miraculously, naturally, qualified.”

This project was compiled by Community Opinion Editor Lucia Wetherill, a rising junior from Newtown, Pa. She is studying in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), with certificates in Global Health Policy and Latin American Studies. She can be reached at