A "Legacy" of Racial Injustice in American Higher Education: It's Admission Time Again-This Month Admission Staffs at the Nation's Elite Institutions Are Scrutinizing Hundreds of College Applications. It's Also Legacy Time Again

By Gasman, Marybeth; Vultaggio, Julie | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, January 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

A "Legacy" of Racial Injustice in American Higher Education: It's Admission Time Again-This Month Admission Staffs at the Nation's Elite Institutions Are Scrutinizing Hundreds of College Applications. It's Also Legacy Time Again


Gasman, Marybeth, Vultaggio, Julie, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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 prefer the children of alumni. In fact, during the early 1900s, prominent graduates of the colonial colleges, fearing that their sons would be displaced in admission 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 historian Dr. Marcia Synnott, immigrants' demands for admission to the nation's elite institutions initiated questions of "whom to educate and why."

In the 1960s, as the pressure for racial integration intensified, acceptance rates for the children of alumni increased in some cases to as much as three times higher than that of the past. Given resistance on the part of historically White institutions to enroll Blacks during the civil rights era, legacy policies may have furnished an excuse to reject racial minorities without resorting to the quotas used in the early 20th century to exclude Jews. As a result, colleges became "citadels of Anglo-Saxon culture."

First, it is important to acknowledge the benefits institutions gain from legacy admissions. Research shows that preferential treatment given to legacies keeps alumni happy, has the potential to increase giving and can strengthen institutional culture. In general, 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 becomes less persuasive as endowments soar over $20 billion. Likewise, while many colleges and universities long for an institutional culture rooted in tradition, when that culture is built on a tradition of exclusion, perhaps it should be changed.

Because legacy admits are typically wealthy, White, fourth-generation college students, they offer little to colleges and universities in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, according to multiple sources, over 90 percent of legacy admits are White Protestants. Thus, legacy admits systematically reproduce a culture of racial and economic privilege.

Research shows that legacies enjoy a 25 percent advantage in admission processes at selective institutions, whereas Blacks receive only an 18 percent advantage due to affirmative action. According to Princeton demographer Dr. Thomas Espenshade, for example, being a legacy applicant is the equivalent of receiving a 160-point boost on the SAT. …

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A "Legacy" of Racial Injustice in American Higher Education: It's Admission Time Again-This Month Admission Staffs at the Nation's Elite Institutions Are Scrutinizing Hundreds of College Applications. It's Also Legacy Time Again
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