Study finds strong advantage for legacies at highly selective colleges and universities

By Justin C. Worland

Harvard Crimson, Harvard U. via UWIRE

Applicants who have family members who attended the school to which they are applying are approximately twice as likely to be admitted to highly selective colleges and universities than their non-legacy counterparts provided all other factors are equal, according to a study published in the Economics of Education Review this past December.

The study, which was conducted by Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate Michael D. Hurwitz, also found that chances of acceptance increase even more dramatically for students with a parent who attended the institution. These so-called primary legacies are seven times more likely than non-legacies to gain admission if all other factors are equal, the study found.

Hurwitz, who cannot disclose whether Harvard was one of the 30 schools that provided him with data, said that there were great variations between the numbers provided by each school.

Although his study finds an overall advantage for legacies, Hurwitz said he recognizes that the consideration of a student’s status as a legacy as part of a holistic approach to evaluating applications.

“[Because of] the quality of students applying to these colleges, it can be difficult to distinguish between students. It’s a small nudge that legacies are getting in most instances,” he said explaining how he believes legacy status is applied practically. “My findings don’t suggest at all that legacies are unqualified for admission.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, said he believes the study supports his belief that legacies receive an unfair advantage in the college admissions process.

“The study provides further evidence that legacy preferences are not merely a feather on a scale which is only employed only in tie-breaking circumstances,” Kahlenberg said. “It suggests that in fact a preference can be quite significant.”

Pointing to a 2003 piece in the Wall Street Journal, Kahlenberg said that Harvard considers legacy status. According to the article, at that time 40 percent of Harvard legacies were accepted compared to 11 percent of applicants overall.

“Harvard is really at the center of this,” he said.

Hurwitz said that while legacy preferences mean a great deal to legacies who are applying for admission, they make little difference in the broader pool of applications because so few applicants are legacies.

According to Hurwitz, response from the participating schools has been positive as the study allows them to observe trends that they would not be able to see by analyzing their data alone.

As for the future of the legacy factor, Hurwitz said he believes the issue is up in the air.

“Sample colleges may feel that such an admission advantage is too big, too small, or just right,” he said in reference to the results of his study. “They may use the findings to reshape their policies.”

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons declined to comment on the study, stating that he needed more time to review its findings.

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