Baby sitting on pile of money

Why Colleges Choose Legacy Admissions Over Equity and Diversity

Despite decades of Affirmative Action, Black and Hispanic students were less represented at elite colleges in 2015 than they were in 1980. How’s that possible? What’s going on?

One answer, a new study suggests, is that one of the most common admissions practices of elite colleges reduces diversity and is getting worse: legacy admissions.

Legacy admissions, where an elite college gives preferential treatment to the children of its alumni, are accepted at vastly greater rates than other kinds of students, even though the new study shows they are no more qualified to attend college and don’t perform any better over the course of their studies.

While elite colleges say they want to increase diversity, they’re not willing to put their money behind their principles, according to the report by Ethan Poskanzer at the University of Colorado at Boulder Leeds School of Business and Emilio Castilla at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Their research shows that legacy applications are significantly more likely to attend if they’re accepted (which means a more certain income stream for the college), and more likely to be significant donors to the college after graduation.

“Contrary to the meritocratic logic, we find that legacies are neither more qualified applicants nor better students academically,” the study’s authors write. Even so, legacies are up to eight times more likely to be accepted to elite schools than non-legacy students.” 

The problem is that giving preferential treatment to legacy students—who again, are no more qualified and statistically do no better at college—penalizes students who don’t come from privileged backgrounds. It reduces diversity on elite campuses. 

“(B)ecause so few parents of color have graduated from these colleges, legacy admissions remain overwhelmingly white,” an article in The Hechinger Report notes. “The unfairness of it all only seems to grow.”

It’s not, the authors concluded, that elite colleges aren’t serious about diversity; but they’re not willing to end legacy admissions because they stand to make more money continuing policies that favor the privileged.

This is particularly troubling given that many elite colleges have substantial endowments—so large that elite colleges have been called “hedge funds that have universities attached.” They’re not actually struggling to pay bills, far from it. So why would they choose legacy admissions over diversity?

Though Castilla and Poskanzer’s study doesn’t emphasize it, one reason is surely the prestige that comes with having a more restrictive admissions environment. Accepting fewer students overall but more legacy applicants makes a school seem more “elite,” which comes with a greater sense of status. 

The idea that status and prestige come from turning a lot of students away is common in higher education, and it ought to be challenged. Being able to offer a high caliber education to more students ought to be more prestigious than turning students away, especially if, as the study shows, the students turned away are just as qualified to be there.  

If colleges really value diversity, if they really value equity, and justice, and social mobility for everyone, then exclusivity isn’t a point of pride, it’s counterproductive.

Calbright is proud to have an open admissions policy: we’re a free online community college that accepts adult Californians with a high school diploma or equivalent. We don’t offer an “elite” education, we offer a great education. We’re for everyone – which is what education is supposed to be. 

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