Legacy Admissions: More than Favoritism

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Legacy admissions have been mentioned quite a bit lately in the wake of the recent Supreme Court case banning affirmative action. Now, advocacy groups have initiated a new legal action against Harvard University, alleging discrimination relating to its legacy admissions program. Many others in the past week have argued that if colleges can no longer admit students based at least in part upon race, perhaps they should no longer be permitted to provide preferences for the children of alumni and donors.  It appears at first blush to be one of those rare things in America these days – a hot-button issue with a bipartisan consensus solution – ban them.


I’m not advocating for the practice of providing legacy admissions. I think that –and everything else relating to how students are chosen at our colleges and universities– should be on the table as we grapple with issues of fairness and equality and the proper role of higher education in America.


However, it’s important to point out some justifications for so-called legacy admissions and why schools continue to stand by the practice even in the face of bipartisan backlash. I think there’s more nuance here than meets the eye.


At most elite private schools, admissions offices have the unenviable task of achieving three ambitious goals: 1) admit a class as academically distinguished as possible, 2) admit a class as racially and culturally diverse as possible, and 3) admit a class that will produce sufficient tuition revenue to balance the university’s books each year. Often these three goals are in direct conflict with one another. Additionally, a fourth challenge, somewhat related to the third one, is to ensure that all available slots are perfectly filled once students have enrolled without going over or under the target number for the class.  All this presents quite a delicate balancing act. The holy grail is landing a class that achieves success in all these areas. No wonder “Enrollment Management” professionals are paid so well these days.


One of the chief ways of achieving the first goal – an academically elite class – is to provide merit-based scholarships and discounts to the most distinguished students. Similarly, scholarships and discounts are among the most effective ways of achieving diversity. The more tuition relief and financial assistance a university provides, the better the chance of enticing these elite and diverse students to enroll.  However, success in these first two objectives will necessarily create quite a challenge when it comes to achieving the third goal – funding the operations of the University. That’s where legacy admissions come in.


From a pure enrollment management standpoint, legacy admissions are useful in navigating these waters. So much of this work involves predicting the chances that each prospective student the university admits will actually come and how much tuition relief will be required to close the deal. And you can bet that many other schools are hotly pursuing all those most sought after by the university. In the era of the common app, many of these top students now apply to dozens of schools and are happy to hold out for the highest bidder. It’s terribly hard to predict which of these will actually enroll after admission. Legacy admits, on the other hand, are many times more likely to enroll once admitted and most frequently are required to come at full price. Thus, they not only play a crucial role in providing the funds necessary to run the operations of the school, but they also provide much more certainty that the school will enroll precisely the target number of students it is hoping for, dramatically reducing the risk of a financial disaster that may take a few years to recover from.


Additionally, so many elite private schools nationwide have benefitted immensely through the years from the philanthropy and engagement of families with ties to the university, which fund everything from buildings to programs, faculty chairs, athletics, and everything else relating to a university, including by the way, scholarships for needy students. It’s not a stretch to say that much of this charitable giving has helped shape those universities into what they are today. And in the same way, that legacy admits are more likely to attend if admitted, ask any development officer, and they will tell you legacy students and their families are also much more likely to give back to the university after graduation.


Finally, at many elite private schools, contrary to popular belief, legacy students are not less qualified than the rest of their classmates. Even at Harvard, legacy students for the Class of ’25 had a higher average SAT (1523) than nonlegacy students (1491). While many of those legacy students may have still been preferred over other applicants, it’s hard to argue they aren’t qualified if their credentials exceed the class average.


Perhaps it’s time for endowments to be a part of this discussion. I think it’s important to mention the role they could play in all of this. A place like Harvard, with its $53 billion endowment, could forgo all federal assistance and then legally ignore the latest Supreme Court ruling and admit as many diverse students as it wishes. Moreover, one could argue that legacy students’ revenue-generating and future philanthropy benefits, as described above, are infinitely less compelling in light of the size of some of these endowments. While not every private school can boast such an endowment, Harvard and several others could easily use endowment interest to do away with tuition entirely. However, schools with smaller endowments would need to quickly learn to manage the new financial dynamic to hit revenue and enrollment targets without legacy admissions. They might struggle to maintain their place in the marketplace.


The legal action initiated by advocacy groups seeking to end legacy admissions might be challenged to achieve the same result as the recent affirmative action cases, since legacy admissions, at least on their face, are not based upon racial classifications like affirmative action is, and therefore may not be reviewed by the courts with strict scrutiny. Perhaps a better avenue is for lawmakers to take aim at the tax-exempt status of some of these universities, which sometimes boast of endowments that exceed the GDP of small countries. A threat to remove that status unless a higher percentage of the endowment is put to use could motivate some schools to apply more endowment interest to fund more equitable outcomes in the admission process.


We are undoubtedly bound to see more and more talk of banning legacy admissions in the coming months and years. It’s fair to say many now feel the time has finally come. However, it’s worth pointing out that there’s much more to it than meets the eye. There are significant financial reasons causing schools to cling to their right to use legacy as a factor in the admissions process.


Dan Coonan is the author of Presidential Spirits, a political Field of Dreams, and its sequel, Another Round of Presidential Spirits – two novels rich in American history that address our present state of political polarization and dysfunction. He has penned five previous essays for Smercomish.com. He served as the athletic director for 11 years at Santa Clara University, then expanded his expertise in athletics management to the conference level. He holds the position of CEO and Commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).


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