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Perspectives: A “Legacy” of Racial Injustice in American Higher Education

It’s admissions time again this month admissions staff at the nation’s elite institutions are cooped up for days, scrutinizing hundreds of college applications. It’s also legacy time again….


Yale has the Bushes, Basses and Whitneys. Harvard has the Astors, Roosevelts and Kennedys. Throughout the history of American higher education, the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities have employed legacy policies that preference the children of privileged alumni. In fact, during the early 1900s, prominent graduates of the colonial colleges, fearing that their sons would be displaced in admissions processes, forced the hand of college administrators in myriad ways, such as threatening to withhold donations and using their connections with university higher ups to pull strings. Conversely, according to Dr. Marcia Synnott, the “demand of upwardly mobile sons of Jewish and Catholic immigrants” for admission to the nation’s elite institutions initiated “an institutional crisis, involving not only existing limitations of classroom space and campus housing, but also questions of educational purpose — of whom to educate and why.”

In the 1960s, as pressure toward racial integration intensified, acceptance rates rapidly increased for children of alumni — in some cases, to as much as three times higher than that of the past (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998). Given resistance on the part of historically White institutions to enrolling Black students during the civil rights era, legacy policies may have furnished an excuse to reject racial minorities without resorting to the quotas that had been used to exclude Jews and Catholics earlier in the century (Gasman, 2007; Thelin, 2004). As a result, Synnott writes, colleges became “citadels of Anglo-Saxon culture” and developed extensive legacy policies that continue to be used today. The primary consequence, however, lies in the exclusion of groups whose parents did not attend elite institutions of higher education.

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge the benefits that institutions gain from legacy admissions. Preferential treatment given to legacies keeps alumni happy, has the potential to increase giving, and can strengthen the existing institutional culture. Generally speaking, most colleges and universities aim to have satisfied, generous graduates. However, as Dr. Jerome Karabel argues in his 2005 book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, advocating for legacy preferences with the goal of increasing alumni donations is becoming less persuasive as endowments soar over $20 billion. Likewise, while many colleges and universities long for an institutional culture rooted in history and tradition, when that culture is built on a tradition of exclusion, perhaps it should be changed. This quote from Synnott (1979) illustrates the issue:

Knowing precisely what they wanted, the prep school crowd created collegiate life.  For the most part, they shunned honor grades in order to devote themselves to extracurricular activities: editorships, managerships, and athletic competitions.  And not only were they paying customers, but they could usually be counted on to contribute generously both their time and money to alumni activities and fund-raising campaigns (the expectation of future support was less certain from students from lower income families).

Because legacy admits are typically wealthy, White, fourth-generation college students, they offer very little to colleges and universities in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, over 90 percent of legacy admits are White Protestants, especially at highly-selective institutions (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Golden, 2006; Howell & Turner, 2004; Larew, 1991). Thus, legacy admits ultimately reinforce the “high-income/high-education/white profile” (Bowen et al. 2005) of elite institutions and systematically reproduce a culture of racial and economic privilege.

In terms of numbers, legacies enjoy a 25 percent advantage in the admission process at selective institutions, whereas Blacks (and other racial and ethnic groups) receive only an 18 percent advantage due to affirmative action (Howell & Turner, 2004). Considering that legacies tend to have lower SAT scores, GPAs, and class rank than general admits, they are often selected based on “pedigree rather than merit,” writes Daniel Golden. According to Dr. Thomas Espenshade, for example, being a legacy applicant was the equivalent of receiving a 160-point boost on the SAT. As such, it could be argued that the under qualified children of alumni are occupying the seats of students who could not only bring quality to the institution but also an element of diversity.

While many scholars note that students of color are given preference in admissions processes, they argue that these students need the bump as a result of societal racism and poor preparation at the primary and secondary school level. These scholars argue that unlike many students of color, legacies would most likely be admitted to other institutions even without the alumni connection (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Espenshade et al., 2004). So, why aren’t we seeing a large scale filing of lawsuits against legacy applicants? Legacy admission policies not only have a potentially negative impact on students of color, but they also hurt the chances of admission for low-income and first generation students (Howell & Turner, 2004; Olivas, 2002; Rodriguez, 1996). Perhaps emphasizing this class-based discrimination will lead to legal challenges to legacy policies, since many Americans are more willing to acknowledge “race-less” economic discrimination than race-based inequality.

The practice of preference for children of alumni, Karabel notes, flies in the face of the “core American principle of equality of opportunity.” Of course, this argument is similar to the ones touted by affirmative action critics, who claim that consideration of race in college admissions violates the principle of equality put forth in the United States Constitution.  However, as the esteemed legal scholar Derek Bell argues, it is much easier to point the finger at people of color (a visible target) than it is to reevaluate and change practices deeply rooted in our “system” of higher education — such as legacy admissions — that perpetuate privilege. Building on this point, many scholars assert that legacy preference is a less-visible form of affirmative action, or more bluntly put by Golden, “affirmative action for rich white people.” In the words of Daniel Golden in his book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges, “even as conservative critics paint affirmative action for college-bound minorities as giving African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans an unfair advantage over more capable white candidates, the truth is the reverse. The number of whites enjoying preference far outweighs the number of minorities aided by affirmative action.”

With respect to admissions rates and legacy advantage, several scholars note the significant advantages afforded the children of alumni at Ivy League institutions. In 2002, for example, Harvard accepted a mere 11 percent of its total applicants, but admitted 40 percent of its legacy applicants, according to Karabel. Likewise, in 2003 Penn admitted 21 percent of its total applicants and a whopping 51 percent of its legacy applicants. However, of note, in 2007 Penn admitted 16 percent of its total applicants compared to 34 percent of legacy applicants; perhaps some change is on the horizon. Nevertheless, according to Golden at Ivy League schools, legacies typically comprise roughly 10-15 percent of the entire student body (see Table 1).

In the current day, few Blacks and Latinos benefit from legacy preferences (Howell & Turner, 2004). Since the number of students of color graduating from highly selective historically White institutions in the 1960s and 70s was low, there are currently few second generation students of color at these institutions. Although some scholars believe that the current legacy trends will reverse over the next few years, most are not so optimistic. Given the demographic profile of the nation’s elite institutions, with low numbers of Blacks and Latinos (between 3 and 9 percent), it is not likely that students of color will significantly benefit from legacy policies in the near future (Bauman et al., 2006; Urban League, 2007). Highly selective institutions can continue to call for increased access and inclusion, but until they re-examine their legacy polices and make substantive changes, diversity on a large scale will continue to be hindered. Given the lingering racism in our country, it is possible that when Blacks and Latinos can benefit from legacy preferences, we will begin to see the legal challenges to this practice that have yet to surface.

Ivy League Acceptance Rates: Legacy and Non-Legacy[1]

[1] Please note that the authors personally called and emailed each of the Ivy League institutions; only two responded to our inquires: Penn and Brown, which have the lowest legacy admission rates.  Harvard and Cornell declined to give out legacy information.  Date are from personal phone calls, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (1995), and Golden, D. (2006). The price of admission: How America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges – and who gets left outside the gates. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers.


Acceptance Rate for Legacies

Acceptance Rate for


























The following references were used in this article, although they all may not be clearly noted due to editing requirements.

Bauman, G., Bustillos, L, Bensimon, E., Brown, M.C., & Bartee, R. (2006). Achieving equitable educational outcomes with all students:  The institution’s roles and responsibilities. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Bowen, W.G. & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bowen, W.G., Kurzweil, M.A., & Tobin, E.M. (2005). Equity and excellence in American higher education. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Duffy, E.A. & Goldberg, I. (1998). Crafting a class: College admissions and financial aid, 1955-1994. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Espenshade, T.J., Chung, C.Y., Walling, J.L. (2004). Admission preferences for minority students, athletes, and legacies at elite universities.  Social Science Quarterly, 85, 1422-1446.

Gasman, M. (2007). Envisioning Black colleges: A history of the United Negro College Fund. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Howell, C., & Turner, S. E. (2004). Legacies in Black and White: The racial composition of the legacy pool. Research in Higher Education, 45(4), 325-351.

Kakutani, M. (November 25, 2005). The course of social change through college admissions.  The New York Times.

Karabel, J. & Karen, D. (1990).  Go to Harvard; Give your kid a break.  The New York Times, December 8, 1990, p. A25.

Karabel, J. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Larew, J. (1991). Why are droves of unqualified, underprepared kids getting into our top colleges?  Washington Monthly, 23(6), 10-14.

Massey, D.S. & Moone, M. (2007). The effects of America’s three affirmative action programs on academic performance. Social Problems, 54(1), 99-117.

Olivas, M. (2002). Governing badly: Theory and practice of bad ideas in college decision-making.  U.S. Department of Education: ERIC Report Number ED482065.

Rodriguez, R. (1996).  The dirty little secret of college admissions.  Black Issues in Higher Education, 13(12), 12-14.

Synnott, M.G. (1979). The admission and assimilation of minority students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970. History of Education Quarterly, 19(3), 285-304.

Synnott, M.G. (1979). The half-opened door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, 1900-1970. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Thelin, J. R. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

University of Pennsylvania. (2007).  Statistics for the Class of 2011.  Retrieved online 10/8/2007 at

Urban League (2007). Black America by the numbers: A snapshot. Chicago: Urban League.

Wechsler, H.S. (1984). The rationale for restriction: Ethnicity and college admission in America, 1910-1980, American Quarterly, 36(5), 643-667.

Wilson, W.J. (1980). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.




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