Advancing a Free Society

Legacy Preferences Make a Lot of Sense, Up to a Point

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A college’s policy of legacy admissions means that the children of graduates of the college are more likely to be accepted by the college when they apply than are other applicants with similar records. Such a policy has the biggest effect on acceptances by elite colleges, partly because they are the hardest schools to get into. Although many colleges do not reveal data on admissions rates of legacies compared to others, the limited data available indicate a large gap. For example, in 2008 Princeton admitted about 40% of all legacy applicants compared to less than 13% of other applicants. Dartmouth’s legacy acceptance rate then was more than twice that of other applicants. However, some of this difference is spurious because legacy applicants are generally better qualified since their parents are better educated and wealthier, and send their children to better schools.

As Posner indicates, legacy admission policies have been widely criticized as being unfair to non-legacy applicants who may have better records. Such a criticism has merit from a narrow perspective, but a legacy policy may in the longer run help both students and faculty. First of all, legacies may help to raise a school’s “harvest” rate; that is, the fraction of accepted applicants who decide to attend. Colleges and universities at all levels are competing against similar institutions for a limited number of qualified high school students. If different applicants look equally acceptable on the basis of their records, preference to the children or grandchildren of alumni may be warranted, even aside from financial considerations.

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