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How Big Is the Legacy Boost at Elite Colleges?

How Big Is the Legacy Boost at Elite Colleges?

The Education Department’s civil rights investigation into Harvard’s preference for admitting the children of alumni and donors is based on a complaint that it gives less-qualified applicants an edge over those who are more deserving, including students of color.

New data shows that at elite private colleges, the children of alumni, known as legacies, are in fact slightly more qualified than typical applicants, as judged by admissions offices. Even if their legacy status weren’t considered, they would still be about 33 percent more likely to be admitted than applicants with the same test scores, based on all their other qualifications, demographic characteristics and parents’ income and education, according to an analysis conducted by Opportunity Insights, a research group at Harvard.

Researchers said that was unsurprising, given that these students grow up in more educated families. Their parents may be more able to invest in their educations, pay for things like private schools or exclusive sports, and offer insight into what the college is looking for.

Yet the admissions advantage they get at many elite colleges for being children of alumni is far greater than that. They were nearly four times as likely to be admitted as applicants with the same test scores, according to the data, released Monday. And legacy students from the richest 1 percent of families were five times as likely to be admitted.

The new study was based in part on internal admissions data from several of a group of 12 elite colleges: the Ivy League as well as Duke, M.I.T., the University of Chicago and Stanford. Because the researchers promised anonymity to the colleges that shared it, they would not say whether Harvard was one of them, but they said that admissions practices were generally consistent across other colleges in the group, except for M.I.T.

They also compared legacies’ chance of admission at the colleges their parents attended versus similarly elite schools. They found that they were slightly more likely to get in to the other colleges than applicants with the same test scores. But that was dwarfed by the advantage they got at the school their parents attended.

“Some people will say, ‘Legacy preferences are justified not because of legacy per se, just because these are really good students,’” said John N. Friedman, an economist at Brown and an author of the new paper. “And it is true that they have slightly higher admissions rates at the other schools. But most of this is coming just from the pure legacy preference itself at their own school.”

It has been well established that legacies have an advantage in elite college admissions. But the new data was the first to quantify it by analyzing internal admissions records. The researchers — Professor Friedman and the economists Raj Chetty and David J. Deming of Harvard — also analyzed comprehensive data of where students applied and attended, whether they received a Pell grant for low-income students and what their SAT scores were, as well as their parents’ income tax records, from 1999 to 2015.

They used more recent data, including the income tax records of graduates of the dozen top colleges in the study, to analyze their post-college outcomes. They estimated that legacy students were no more likely than other graduates to make it into the top 1 percent of earners, attend an elite graduate school or work at a prestigious firm. If anything, they were slightly less likely to do so.

“This isn’t about unqualified students getting in,” said Michael Hurwitz, who leads policy research at the College Board and has done research on legacy admissions that found similar patterns. “But when you’re picking a class out of a group of 10 times more qualified students than you can possibly admit, then a modest thumb on the scale translates into a fairly large statistical advantage.”

The additional boost legacies receive in admissions has recently been questioned by members of Congress in both parties, and President Biden. The Supreme Court raised the issue when it ruled last month that race-based affirmative action was unconstitutional.

“This preferential treatment has nothing to do with an applicant’s merit,” wrote Lawyers for Civil Rights, which filed the complaint with the Education Department. “Instead, it is an unfair and unearned benefit that is conferred solely based on the family that the applicant is born into. This custom, pattern and practice is exclusionary and discriminatory. It severely disadvantages and harms applicants of color.”

Legacy students are more likely to be white. At Harvard, seven in 10 were, according to a 2019 analysis of data before the court. (Roughly half of American 18-year-olds are non-Hispanic white.) Ending the preference for legacies would increase the number of nonwhite students admitted, the analysis concluded.

Legacy students are also more likely to come from rich families. Even among legacies, those who were richest had an advantage, the Opportunity Insights researchers found in the data released this week.

Elite colleges say they prioritize legacies for a few reasons. It helps maintain strong ties with alumni, which assists with donations, networking and a sense of community. When admitted, children of alumni are much more likely to attend — helping with something admissions offices call their yield rate.

Yet recently, some selective private colleges, like Wesleyan, have ended the legacy preference, and the practice has been banned at Colorado’s public colleges. In a statement, a Harvard spokeswoman said: “Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision, we are in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences.”

A dean of admissions in the Ivy League, who spoke anonymously, said the public perception that legacy students were underqualified or overwhelmingly white was less true among Ivy League colleges and their peers.

“Certainly on the academic side, they’re quite strong,” the person said. “And because institutions are more diverse over time, legacy applicants are more diverse than they have ever been.”

Still, the person said, “The pressure has never been greater, and it’s becoming more and more challenging to explain why you identify these students in the process.”

Alicia Parlapiano contributed graphics.

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