Legacy admissions originated in the 1900s, when colleges and universities started to reward the families of their alumni in the hopes of donations. But over time, it became used to discriminate against Jewish and Catholic students. The process has evolved to favor White and wealthy students today.
Despite the negative implications of legacy admissions on students of color and low-income communities, many colleges and universities across the country continue to use the process. School administrators give preferential treatment to children of alumni who tend to be from wealthier families, and as a result, place those who are not related to alumni at a disadvantage. Legacy admissions is unfair, racist and classist and must end at the University and schools nationwide.
A decade ago, children of GW alumni were reported to be one and a half times more likely to be accepted than applicants who did not have a parent who attended the University. To this day, the University offers special programming, like information sessions and orientation activities, to new and prospective legacy students. Off the bat, officials should publicly disclose whether or not their admissions process still favors legacy applicants. But even the notion that legacy families have access to exclusive events is inherently elitist. GW must, like all other colleges and universities that engage in this discriminatory behavior, stop giving legacy students and their families the upper hand. There are a slew of other ways GW and other schools can bring in donations without leaning on wealthy alumni with college-aged kids.
About 42 percent of private colleges and universities considered legacy status in their admissions process, according to a 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed. In a 2019 study, Inside Higher Ed found that children of alumni were more than three times more likely than non-legacy applicants to be admitted into some of the most selective institutions in the country. At Harvard University, the rate of acceptance for legacy applicants was more than five times higher than that of non-legacy applicants. These applicants are strongly preferred in the admissions process, making it more difficult for non-legacy students to be accepted. This means that a large portion of admissions spots are being filled by people who already had a leg up, excluding qualified applicants who may not have had the same privileged background.
Many students, at no fault of their own, do not have parents who attended the universities to which they are applying. An analysis of the racial and economic factors involved in the admissions process makes clear that these processes are not only just unfair, but also discriminatory against people of color, first generation students and people from lower-income communities.
Only 27 percent of Black children and 21 percent of Hispanic children have a parent with a bachelor’s degree, compared to 53 percent of White students. It is far less likely for students of color who apply to college to have a parent that attended a university, and specifically the university to which they are applying, than White students. They are also less likely to benefit from the preferential treatment given to legacy students. Some have even referred to legacy admissions as affirmative action for White people.
Aside from being a discriminatory practice, legacy admissions favors wealthier students and families. A study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that about half of the 2,000 institutions they analyzed were affordable only to the wealthiest students. Not only that, 54 percent of lower-income students attended college compared to nearly 70 percent of higher-income students. Already, lower-income families are less likely to be able to afford a college education. Giving such a large advantage in the admission process only to students whose parents could afford college hurts lower-income students and communities even more.
Universities often defend their use of legacy admissions by arguing that it helps with donations, but this claim is largely unfounded. Studies have found there is no causal relationship between legacy preference and alumni donations. Accepting more legacy students will not necessarily result in increased donations, contrary to the arguments of universities that continue to honor this process. College officials concerned about donations need not rely on legacy admissions as a source of funding.
While GW is currently trying to work on its diversity and inclusion efforts, they are simultaneously celebrating legacy students — students who have a leg up, come from privileged backgrounds and are more likely to be wealthy and white. Legacy admissions are a step back from their supposed goal.
Continuing legacy admissions would perpetuate a racist and classist cycle, and universities – GW included – must stop considering this factor in their admissions decisions.
Laya Reddy, a sophomore majoring in political science and music, is a columnist.