Does Legacy Matter in College Admissions?

Does Legacy Matter in College Admissions?

Dr. Mark Fisher discusses legacy importance in college admissions.

Dr. Mark Fisher
Dr. Mark Fisher

Your parent, sibling or even grandparent went to a college that you, a high school student, are considering. Wow, you think, “I have an advantage being a legacy.” Let’s look at legacy in admissions. It is a little bit more complicated than you think.

In 2018, a survey of college admissions officers in [the online publication] Inside Higher Ed found that 42 percent of officials at private colleges still considered legacy in admissions decisions. For public universities, the number was much lower, at 6 percent.

Why did colleges consider legacy as a factor in admissions? Let’s assume that the legacy candidate was ineligible for admission or not as worthy as the college’s other candidates. The college likely considered the following:
1. We could raise money from families loyal to the school.
2. Some of those relatives may have given substantial donations in the past.
3. Alumni children would be more familiar with the college. After all, they may have been cheering for the college football team when just a young child.

The origins of legacy, dating back to the 1920s, don’t paint a pretty picture about enrolling certain students. A study emanating from researchers at Purdue University indicated that Jewish, non-white and immigrant students did not have many relatives who had attended a particular university. Therefore, a mostly white, Christian student body resulted. Most Jews would not be able to claim legacy status because, early on, the Jewish parent population was not what it is today with so many Jewish parents who had been to college.

In January, Johns Hopkins University, a highly ranked academic institution, eliminated legacy in the admissions process. The admissions world was stunned. That change was compared to the University of Chicago going test-optional last year.

“But my father and mother and sister went to your college,” the college applicant laments. “I thought that I may be next.”

“Sorry, we no longer use legacy in the admissions decisions at Johns Hopkins.”

Quietly over the past 10 years, Johns Hopkins has been phasing out legacy preference. Why? The president, Ronald Daniels, stated that “one of the university’s most fundamental roles in a democracy is to promote social mobility. And students from the top 1 percent of the income spectrum are more enrolled in top universities than from the bottom 60 percent.”

Now, the incoming class at Hopkins comprised only 3.5 percent legacies, down from 12.5 percent 10 years before. Furthermore, students eligible for federal Pell Grants rose from 9 to 19.1 percent.

The application for Hopkins does ask for any legacy connections. But this is for research to determine any changes in the student body. So far, there has been some disappointment in the admissions change, but not much. There has been no decrease in donations. In fact, alumni generally are satisfied with the new process in admissions.

What will the future bring? Some colleges have noted that multigenerational families are still important to the college. This leads to a network of dedicated alumni. However, that does not mean that first generation students and non-white students are losing out. Legacy students are not a major part of the student body. Poor academic applicants, even if a student has legacy status, won’t be admitted anyway. What will happen if the legacy applicant and the first-generation student are both eligible for acceptance in the applicant pool?

Here is a scenario for you to judge: You are the president of a college.

How would you want your admissions department and the development office to handle the following case? You are finishing the acceptance, denied, waitlist admissions process.

Student No. 1 comes from a highly ranked high school. Her GPA is 4.0 with a host of extracurricular activities. Her SAT verbal [reading-writing score] is 590; math score is 610. She is a legacy student whose father attended your university. In fact, the father donated $2 million to the college’s new business school building and has always donated to the school.

Student No. 2 comes from a very diverse inner-city high school. His GPA is 3.7 with a SAT verbal score of 590 and a math score of 610 and he is the first child in his family to attend college. He’s also a seasoned basketball player and has been recruited by your athletic department.

You have to choose between these two students. Of course, there are many factors in this case but knowing only the above scenario, what do you want the admissions office to decide? The choice is yours to make as the president of the college. The board of trustees has left the decision to you. You know what the development department desires, and you know what the basketball coach wants. Yes, you are the decisionmaker. Good luck.

Dr. Mark Fisher is a college and career consultant at Fisher Educational Consultants,, and a consultant for the College Planning Institute,

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