The Oldest Form of Education Affirmative Action…Legacy Preference

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Rev. Elliott Robinson, JD, MDiv

Whenever the issue of affirmative action in education comes up, the gaze always falls solely on ethnicity. Pundits and talking heads place the conversation squarely on the minuscule number of slots “allocated” for students of color. However, there’s really only an uproar of opposition when the slots are for African-American and Latino students.  

Rarely does the conversation move to the single highest and most effective measure of affirmative action in all of higher education, “Legacy Preference.” Legacy Preference is when a university provides a preference for students who are related to an alum, trustee or employee of that university. The preference process could include guaranteeing a 2nd reading of their application, recruiting events tailored specifically for relatives of alums or a separate admissions process. Legacy Preference has been eliminated by several universities over the past 10-15 years, but it’s still very common at both public and private colleges and universities across the country.

In May of 2015, Shreya Sekhsari of the The Daily Princetonian provided insight into the legacy preference numbers at the Ivies from the Class of 2000 until the Class of 2018. You can read that article in its entirety here: “Legacy status remains a factor in admissions.”

Some key insights from Shreya are below.

…According to the Princeton Profiles, the children and step-children of University undergraduate and graduate alumni have constituted between 10 and 15 percent of the enrolled classes at the University since the Class of 2000.

In this time period, Yale has admitted between 8 and 13 percent legacy students, Harvard between 12 and 16, Dartmouth between 8 and 14 and Cornell between 14 and 17.

The University of Pennsylvania has 13 percent legacy admits in the Class of 2018. Columbia and Brown did not release these percentages in their admission announcements and class profiles.

The acceptance rate for alumni children and step-children has wavered without a specific trend between 35 and 42 percent since the Class of 2000, with the Class of 2018 hitting a record low of 30.8 percent, according to the Princeton Profiles….

…Harvard’s legacy acceptance rate has wavered around 30 percent, Yale’s between 20 and 25 percent, and Brown does not keep track of the data. Cornell, Penn, Dartmouth and Columbia University did not release this data.

Legacy preference is a form of affirmative action. An individual is given admission preference based on a set of criteria outside of their control: Applicant’s relatives. This criteria is as outside of the applicant’s control as their ethnicity or hometown; yet, it can play an important factor in their admission to a particular college.

However. when the issue of affirmative action in education is raised, there is a very narrow lens through which it is viewed and applied. Despite Legacy Preference being a far more determinative factor in admission, it goes largely ignored and thus avoids any serious scrutiny. I believe in part because the people who are responsible for framing affirmative action discussions and debates are often beneficiaries of the Legacy Preference, either as student-recipients or parents hoping their offspring can receive the same benefit.

Perhaps we could have more honest dialogue on this subject if we moved Legacy Preference to the top of the discussion on educational affirmative action. Especially since its impact is exponentially higher than any other form of action. But as my Daddy would say, “That would be too much like right.”

Rev. Elliott Robinson, JD, MDiv is a Public Theologian, Co-Host of Wellness Blueprint Radio, Founder of the Creative Tension Podcast (launches Sept. 2017), Strategic Advisor and Preacher. Twitter & Instagram: @RevERobinson – Facebook: RevElliottRobinson

Love God, Love People


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