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What recent defenses of legacy admissions get wrong

Alumni from all class years gather for the P'Rade.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

As Princeton students, we are lucky that our education affords us endless opportunities. According to a recent study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, the chance of reaching the top 1 percent of the income distribution is boosted by 60 percent for graduates of Ivy League schools and peer private institutions when compared to selective public colleges. The same study also finds that the chances of attending a prestigious graduate school or working at a prestigious firm are doubled and tripled, respectively, for graduates of these schools.

In addition to these impressive outcomes, Princeton alumni are also entitled to the privilege of their children receiving a boost in the admissions process. 


If already-privileged Princeton graduates are granted another benefit — one that helps their children secure a spot at a potentially life-changing institution that for many could be an engine of upward mobility — there must be a good reason. Recently, The Daily Princetonian has published two arguments for legacy admissions that highlight legacy students promoting institutional change and intergenerational culture. But some legacy students will be admitted to Princeton even without a boost, and these benefits can be realized through other means. These are insufficient reasons for preserving preferential admissions for legacy applicants. 

Before diving into the specific arguments, it is important to establish the existence of a legacy “boost.”

Chetty’s study quantified that for Ivy League institutions and their counterparts, legacy applicants, when applying to the school at which they have legacy status, have an acceptance rate four times that of non-legacy students with similar test scores, but their acceptance rate is only slightly higher for other colleges. This suggests that the legacy preference is real and sizable, for if all legacy applicants were objectively more qualified, there likely would not be such a stark difference in acceptance rates depending on whether or not their application is read by the admissions committee of the school that their parents attended.

In defense of this policy, columnist Ava Johnson writes that, especially as the alumni pool diversifies, upholding legacy admissions is important because legacy students have “greater initial insight into how the school should change in the future” and “the ability to see and illuminate the path towards that change.” But this argument assumes that the cultural change driven by legacy students is inherently progressive and forward-looking. Whereas Johnson examines specifically what it means to be a legacy student who is also an underrepresented minority, left unexamined is what it means to be a legacy student who does not come from the same background. Many different stories could be told about Princeton to future students: perhaps fathers from the Class of 1990 tell their boys about how wonderful it was to be in the formerly all-male Ivy Club, leading their future legacy students to desire to change Princeton by returning gender-exclusion to eating clubs. 

Moreover, there are countless other ways to inspire student-driven change without preferential legacy admissions. For example, the Princeton University Library works on initiatives, such as “Archiving Student Activism at Princeton Collection” with the purpose of enabling students to get involved in activism by preserving organizations’ records, preventing “gaps in institutional memory” and sustaining activist projects.

Another defense of legacy admissions comes from columnist Sarah Park, who argues that legacy admissions is valuable because it fosters “the intergenerational community Princeton values so strongly.” But this is a subjective opinion: there is no reason why legacy students are uniquely important to upholding the intergenerational Princeton community that extends beyond our time as undergraduates. Connections are built in many ways, such as through membership of a student organization or eating club. 


Even beyond smaller communities within Princeton, simply having attended the same school can forge a powerful intergenerational bond. Princeton is known to have a particularly strong alumni network that extends worldwide — a connection extended to both legacy and non-legacy students. After all, who among us hasn’t bumped into someone in a Princeton sweatshirt and started up a long conversation? 

Preferential legacy admissions may be one of many mechanisms for promoting an intergenerational culture — shared group membership and experiences, for example, may contribute as well. Indeed, attendance at Princeton reunions, a quasi-proxy for the strength of the intergenerational community, is notably high even compared to our peer institutions like Yale and Dartmouth that also employ preferential legacy admissions, indicating that legacy admissions alone cannot be responsible for fostering an intergenerational culture. 

Overall, Johnson and Park justify preferential legacy admissions by focusing on the unique ways in which legacy students contribute to university communities. But even if these were truly unique contributions, their arguments confuse a world without preferential legacy admissions for a world in which no legacy students are accepted. If legacy students were no longer given a boost because their parents attended Princeton, it is incredibly unlikely that legacies would cease to be accepted. This is because benefits awarded to Princeton alumni can trickle down to their children — perhaps a Princeton graduate’s high-paying job could finance elite private schools, or help their child get an internship in the lab of their freshman-year roommate. As such, the children of alumni are probably already poised to submit strong college applications. Indeed, Chetty’s study concludes that without legacy preferences, legacy students would still have slightly higher acceptance rates because of their “favorable observable characteristics,” such as academic achievements, compared to applicants with similar test scores. Thus, ending legacy admissions would still leave room for legacy students to pave the way for change, as Johnson highlights, and an intergenerational community, as Park emphasizes.

Legacy students will be able to contribute to Princeton’s community regardless of whether a preferential admissions system is in place because many will be accepted without a boost. A robust argument for preferential treatment of legacy students should indicate why the extra legacy students admitted under a system of legacy admissions are uniquely important — not just why legacy students overall are important for our institution. 

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Anais Mobarak is a junior from Newton, Mass. studying chemistry. She can be reached at am7880[at]