Why elite colleges can’t give up legacy admissions

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Poskanzer and Castilla promised to keep the identity of the elite college they studied a secret in order to publish their findings. But they described it as a Northeastern private college that is “representative” of the top 25 schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report.  Like other elite schools, the student body is wealthy. Half of the students hail from ZIP codes with mean household incomes over $100,000, a threshold that only 6 percent of ZIP codes in America met during the study period.

More than a third of the legacy students who applied were accepted, compared with only 14 percent of non-legacy students. That added up to almost 3,300 children of alumni accepted during the 16 years that the researchers studied. Legacy students are a major category, rivaling the total number of students of other races and ethnicities. Approximately, 3,500 Black students, 3,100 Hispanic students and 7,300 Asian students were given offers of admission during the time period studied. (There is some overlap between legacy and students of color, but nearly three-quarters of the legacies were white.)

Legacies were much more likely to attend. Of the accepted legacy students, nearly three quarters – 74 percent – agreed to come and enrolled. Fewer than half of the non-legacy students – just 47 percent – matriculated. That’s a giant 27 percentage point difference. The more predictable, better yield that legacies offer allows the college to plan each admissions cycle with more certainty and anticipate future tuition revenues, the authors explained.

Donations, of course, are the other big bonus that legacy students bring. At this college, the alumni engagement office assigned each alumni a score based on how graduates contribute after graduating. It’s unclear exactly how many dollars each point translates to, but legacies had an average “give” score of 48 points, 50 percent higher than the 32 point average of non-legacies.

It’s not that legacy students earned higher wages after graduation. Both groups – legacy and non-legacy – had an average income of roughly $85,000 a year.

Even more potent was the propensity to be a big donor.  A whopping 42 percent of legacy graduates were flagged as potential top donors, which could include their whole family. Only 6 percent of non-legacy graduates were flagged as potential top donors.

“Legacies make better alumni after graduation and have wealthier parents who are materially positioned to be more generous donors than non-legacy parents,” the authors wrote.

Academically, legacy applicants tended to have slightly lower high school grades. But the lower achieving legacy applicants were generally rejected. Among the admitted legacies, grades and test scores were indistinguishable from non-legacy students. Both groups had an average SAT score that surpassed 1430. Once on campus, legacy students tended to have slightly higher college grades, but their involvement in campus activities, merit awards, academic recognition and on-time graduation rates were indistinguishable from non-legacy students. In sum, legacy students, on average, were about as academically strong as non-legacy students, neither superior nor inferior.

Of course, there is a downside to legacies. As Poskanzer put it, college admissions is a “zero-sum” game and for every legacy applicant who is admitted, there is one less seat for everyone else. Graduating from these elite colleges can open doors to jobs and change lives.

Admissions officers are not intentionally opting for white students over students of color, but they have conflicting pressures. One goal is to pick a diverse class, but they are also tasked with selecting students who will come and who will support the school financially thereafter. Legacy students fill those latter two demands.