In July, Wesleyan University announced its decision to end legacy admissions. As Wesleyan President Michael Roth put it in an interview with NPR, “it became clear to me that any advantage you give to incumbents, to people who already have advantages, is a glaring sign of unfairness.”1 Despite repeating that legacy admissions “affect so few people,” Roth nevertheless affirmed the university’s commitment to creating a diverse student body, which in his words means “not advantaging people who already have advantages.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent vote to end affirmative action, legacy admissions have become a convenient scapegoat for the massive inequalities that pervade higher education in The United States. Derided by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “affirmative action for the privileged,” and by countless others as “affirmative action for white people,” legacy admissions are transparently nepotistic and contradict the self-professed meritocratic ideals of university mission statements. Education, we are told, is precisely the sort of institution where anyone can succeed by dedication and hard work alone, not by being born into a wealthy, connected family.
The problem with legacy admissions, according to Roth and others, is that legacy admissions stifle diversity. Because such preferences overwhelmingly benefit white people, students of color have a more difficult chance of being accepted. This is certainly true at the most selective institutions, where acceptance rates are incredibly low. In 2023, 56,937 students applied for admission to Harvard University, but only 1,942 were admitted. Of these 3.4 percent of applicants, 15.3 percent were African American, 29.9 percent were Asian American, 11.3 percent were Hispanic or Latino, and 2.7 percent were Native American or Native Hawaiian. The remaining 40.8 percent were white.2
The question we might ask is what these numbers would look like in the absence of legacy preferences. According to a civil rights enquiry by the Department of Education, “Harvard gives preference to applicants who are recruited athletes, legacies, relatives of donors and children of faculty and staff. As a group, they make up less than 5 percent of applicants, but around 30 percent of those admitted each year. About 67.8 percent of these applicants are white, according to court papers.” This means that of the approximately 800 white students, some 395 could have possibly been legacy admissions. Without these legacy applicants, assuming none would be accepted on their own merit, only 21 percent of the incoming class would be white. For those upset about discrimination, this certainly looks like proof that white people are receiving special treatment.
Two things are worth mentioning. The first is that, somewhat ironically, the racial diversity of legacy applicants is almost directly proportional to the diversity of the US population at large. While the 68 percent of white applicants are slightly overrepresented (they comprise about 59 percent of the US population), the remaining 32 percent of applicants are students of color. Indeed, Harvard’s student body underrepresents whites and overrepresents Asian Americans students quite dramatically. Even with the admission of legacy preferences, Harvard is far more racially diverse than, say, Bowling Green State University, where I currently teach. At my institution, some 78 percent of students are white (which makes sense, given that the majority of students come from Ohio, which is likewise 78 percent white).
More importantly, the crude, counterfactual math above assumes that the 395 white legacy applicants wouldn’t be admitted otherwise. In fact, many of them probably would, because as children born into wealthy, elite families, they have the necessary resources that offer the sort of competitive advantages necessary for acceptance into highly selective institutions. They likely went to elite high schools. They have parents who can pay for tutors to assist with testing and application requirements. They have the time to commit to extra-curricular activities and community engagements. They have been raised, from early childhood, to navigate the social hierarchy, and have been guided by educated, connected family members toward pursuing an elite education. As the New York Times reported, the median family income of the Harvard student body is 168,800 dollars, and 67 percent come from the top 20 percent of family income. Three times as many students come from the top 1 percent as the bottom 20 percent.3
All of this makes Roth’s claim that it is unfair to “give advantages to people who already have advantages” laughable. The median family income of Wesleyan students is 192,400 dollars, and nearly half of the student body comes from a family in the top 5 percent of income earners.4 In this sense, the real problem with legacy admissions is not that they give an unfair advantage to those who already have advantages, but that they reveal just how indifferent to “fairness” these institutions are in the first place (to say nothing of diversity, which is hardly the same thing as equality). Ultimately, the argument to eliminate them functions as little more than an ideological maneuver to allow us to cling to the meritocratic myth, and to distract from the underlying class inequality perpetuated by the American model of higher education.
Those allergic to such analysis might respond that this inequality is itself a symptom of the racial divide: it may be true that it is the wealthy who benefit, but the wealthy are overwhelmingly white, a generational transfer that for some dates back to the land-owning aristocracy of the Antebellum South. Admitting more students of color thus becomes a kind of soft version of reparations, offering privileged access to correct historical injustice. Georgetown University has made this connection explicit. One of several elite institutions that has publicly apologized for its historical role in slavery, Georgetown now extends its preferential admission consideration to descendants of those enslaved by the Maryland Province of Jesuits. This consideration, its admissions page notes, “would be similar to the care and attention given to applicants who are descendants of faculty, staff or alumni.”5 The median family income of Georgetown students is 229, 100 dollars, and 74 percent of all students come from a family in the top economic quintile.6
Writing recently for The New Yorker, Harvard Law Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen praised Georgetown’s decision as a potential model for “transform[ing] college access.”7 Because slavery is not technically race-specific, as she notes, universities could offer a workaround for the affirmative action ban by allowing students to claim they have enslaved ancestry. This, certainly, would give a new meaning to the term “legacy admission.”
It’s unclear, however, how such a policy would meaningfully “transform” access to college. For one thing, students would need to prove their lineage to receive preferential admission, which as other reparations policies have shown is not always easy. Those who can’t prove this lineage, or whose ancestors were never enslaved, have no legal claim to preferential treatment. If these students come from a highly privileged family, as most Georgetown students do, this is not a meaningful barrier to entry—the rich always find their way in. It is a barrier, however, if one happens to be poor and lack the time and resources to perform the adequate genealogical research. (Don’t worry: Georgetown supplies website links!) Of course, institutions like Georgetown and Harvard are not that interested in helping the poor. If they were, they certainly wouldn’t be charging 80,000 dollars a year to attend, and they might consider accepting more than 5 percent of applicants. The problem is that doing so would make a place like Harvard no longer Harvard—a troubling scenario for no one except those who want to preserve its ultra-elite status.
Indeed, unspoken in all of this is that legacy admissions are only a notable problem at places like Harvard. Public universities that accept most applicants are not making headlines for admitting a small number of legacy applicants, assuming the university has a legacy preference in the first place (many don’t). Community colleges, certainly, do not have a bad reputation for admitting too many privileged offspring. The preponderance of outrage has been directed at Ivy League universities and elite private colleges, often by politicians and media figures educated at or associated with these same institutions. Gersen’s reasoning admits as much when she notes,
Many of the most selective schools that currently give preference to the offspring of alumni did not admit Black students in significant numbers until the nineteen-sixties or seventies. And, since then, disproportionately small percentages of those schools’ student bodies have been Black. That means that the vast majority of Black American families have at most two generations of alumni experience despite having been in the United States for centuries.8
This remark is both true and incredibly myopic—as though the major issue facing Black Americans is that they aren’t represented enough at Harvard alumni events. Without question, the vast majority of Black Americans have little alumni experience at elite institutions. But the same is true for the vast majority of white Americans, and for that matter Americans of any racial category. This is precisely what makes elite institutions elite. But the problem with Harvard, according to the most vocal critics of its admissions preferences, isn’t the fact that it is a university managed by and for the ruling class. It’s that the ruling class lacks the sort of diversity desired by professionals beholden to it. For this class, and those clamoring to join it, injustice has far less to do with being poor than it does being forced to attend NYU or Dartmouth.
Put another way, almost no poor people have alumni experience at elite universities, but their alumni experiences at even the most accepting of universities isn’t much greater. One of the most enduring myths about higher education is its promise of social mobility. It would be one thing to argue that legacy admissions prevent poor students of color from access to a middle- or upper-class life, but this scenario is primarily a fiction, with some exceptions that inevitably find their way into motivational profiles written for virtuous professionals. The fact that Harvard admits only 4.5 percent of students from the bottom 20 percent is not an accident: the vast majority of poor students do not apply to selective institutions, and a significant number don’t pursue higher education at all. As Gary Roth notes in his book Educated Underclass, noting a study that followed a group of 15,400 high school sophomores: “In low-income families, nearly half of the children never made it beyond high school, and only one-fifth attended a four-year college or university, with the remainder either attending a two-year institution or a postsecondary program of even shorter duration.”9 Legacy admissions, in other words, are not keeping poor students of color out of elite universities. Poverty is.
Consider another study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), analyzing the class of 2013, which showed that of the small number of students in the bottom quintile who pursue any sort of higher education, only 7 percent applied to highly selective four-year institutions. Another 15 percent applied to “moderately selective” institutions such as public universities, while 61 percent enrolled in two-year community colleges or shorter certificate-granting programs. At the other end of the income distribution, 78 percent of students in the top quintile applied to either highly- or moderately selective institutions. Echoing Roth, the study found that 44 percent of the lowest quintile and 34 percent of the second-lowest quintile never enrolled at all, and many of those who did eventually left. By 2016, only 28 percent of the bottom quintile was still enrolled.10
Ultimately, while various graphs depicting earnings by educational attainment will highlight that those with a bachelor’s degree earn more on average than those without one, what they don’t tell you is that most of these numbers directly mirror that of their parents. The reason people with college degrees make more money is because they tend to come from families that make more money, so what looks to be “mobility” is often just continuity. Roth is exactly right when he writes, “The educational system functions as an inverted funnel through which the class system reproduces itself quite literally.”11 Even a public institution like Bowling Green State University, with an acceptance rate close to 80 percent, does not enroll the poorest among us. The median family income is 82,400 dollars, which is nearly 25,000 dollars higher than the state median. While only 4.4 percent of students come from the top 5 percent, only 6 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent. Nearly a third of students come from families with incomes of 110,000 dollars or more.12
The myth of education’s role in social mobility is incredibly powerful. But the reality is that the vast majority of students who enroll in college are not coming from the most impoverished situations—the fact that they are applying to college in the first place is a good indicator of this. This is not to say that it never happens, or that working-class students don’t attend college, but it is an admission that American higher education is managed by and structured around the concerns of those outside of the working class. This is why calling legacy admissions “affirmative action for white people” misses the point: most white people don’t enroll in college. In 2018, total enrollment rate was 41 percent. Whites (42 percent) and Blacks (37 percent) enrolled at similar rates. Very few of them went to elite schools with legacy admissions.13
Like most liberal arguments obsessed with race, legacy admissions are really just a way to avoid talking about class—or, more precisely, to talk about their own class, which assumes that everyone else must also aspire to get into Yale or Harvard. Tellingly, a day after the Supreme Court banned race-conscious admissions, it struck down Biden’s modest debt forgiveness plan, but the latter ruling seems to have stirred far less anger among prominent media outlets. It is far easier, and much more acceptable, to talk about discrimination than exploitation. Besides, there are other ways to avoid student loan payments, as the New York Times wrote on the day of the decision. Among the options was “death,” which the article noted in a now-deleted remark “is not something that most people would choose as a solution to their debt burden.”14 Most solutions to debt burden, of course, are rarely much of a choice.
One option the article didn’t mention: going back to school.
- Fadel, Leila. “Wesleyan University’s President on the School’s Decision to End Legacy Admissions.” NPR, 21 July 2023, www.npr.org/2023/07/21/1189186753/wesleyan-universitys-president-on-the-schools-decision-to-end-legacy-admissions.
- “Harvard College Accepts 3.41% of Applicants to Class of 2027: News: The Harvard Crimson.” The Harvard Crimson, www.thecrimson.com/article/2023/3/31/admissions-decisions-2027/
- “Economic diversity and student outcomes at Harvard University.” the New York Times, www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/harvard-university
- Georgetown University. “Descendants.” Office of Undergraduate Admissions, uadmissions.georgetown.edu/applying/descendants/
- “Economic diversity and student outcomes at Georgetown University.” the New York Times, www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/georgetown-university
- Gersen, Jeannie Suk. “The End of Legacy Admissions Could Transform College Access.” The New Yorker, 8 August 2023, www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-end-of-legacy-admissions-could-transform-college-access
- Roth, Gary. The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility. (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 20
- National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). “Young Adult Educational and Employment Outcomes by Family Socioeconomic Status,” nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/tbe/outcomes-by-socioeconomic-status
- Roth, 37
- “Economic diversity and student outcomes at Bowling Green State University.” the New York Times, www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/bowling-green-state-university
- National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Digest of Education Statistics: 2019, Table 302.60.
- Metzger, Brian. “the New York Times suggested ‘Death’ as one of six ways you can still get your student debt canceled after Supreme Court ruling.” Business Insider, 30 June 2023, www.businessinsider.com/new-york-times-suggests-death-as-one-of-6-ways-for-students-to-cancel-debt-2023-6