What Is a College Legacy?: A History and Examination

Ava Rosenow

When applying for top-tier, competitive universities, students look for anything to give them a leg-up, and one of the most “common” ladder rungs is legacy. Legacy refers to students being given preference at a college or university for the sole reason that one of their relatives attended the same school. This process should be abolished. Debra von Bargen, the assistant dean at Stanford, describes the way their team evaluates legacy students by saying that “when an applicant indicates that he or she is a legacy, the admissions office checks with the Alumni Association, which responds not only with a yes or no but also an indication of whether the alum in question has maintained his or her connection to the school.” 

The practice of considering legacy status originated at the Ivy League schools, a group of 8 schools in the same athletic conference, known for being prestigious and highly selective. Legacy is prejudiced, even at its very root, as it was created to keep immigrants—particularly Jews—out of the Ivy League schools. The Ivys realized that if they let people in based solely on merit, any Jew who fit the academic standards could enter, making the school less desirable to the Anglo-Saxon men who already attended or wanted to attend. According to the chairman of Yale’s Board of Admissions from 1920-1933, Jewish people and other immigrants “were lacking in “manliness, uprightness, cleanliness, native refinement” (The Chosen, Karabel 110). The thought of losing their majority protestant, Anglo-Saxon prospects was terrifying to the universities as these were the men whose families were the most likely to be generous donors in the future compared to the first-generation college applicants. 

So, the schools instituted Legacy, which justified the rejection of many more Jewish candidates as the majority were immigrants or children of immigrants and, therefore, did not have Alumni parents. Even today, Legacy is still called “affirmative action for the rich” because it encourages the recycling of the same affluent students and families already privileged by having successful parents because they went to a selective school and most likely already have a network of well-connected friends. 

 Forbes argues that legacy should stay because it encourages Alumni to maintain a connection and donate to their alma mater. That money, in turn, can help fund scholarships and educational programs, which is undoubtedly a salient and valid point. For example, a study done by Harvard in regards to their admission process concluded that “Harvard alumni…offer generous financial support to their alma mater” which “is essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning” and “helps make the financial aid policies possible.” Yet, even at Yale, which, as previously discussed, has a long history with legacy, when freshmen with an Alum in their family nearly halved from 1980-2010, overall Alumni donations to the school increased. Even “after adjusting for inflation, Yale’s endowment, which is funded in part by alumni donations, grew from just under $2 billion in 1980 to more than $16 billion in 2010, as expressed in 2010 dollars.” 

Additionally, the notion that people are only paying the school to help get their children in is morally wrong, bordering on bribery. If someone is going to donate, should not they do it out of the goodness of their heart instead of being only concerned about their child receiving favoritism? While giving your children a leg up is a nice benefit, it should not be the sole motivator for potential donors. Furthermore, while the schools do use the donated money in helpful ways, like new buildings, scholarships, financial aid, and general resources, much of the funds given could do much more good if given to charity instead of to private universities that already charge tens of thousands of dollars for tuition. Just because a student was admitted with legacy checked off on their application does not in any way, shape, or form mean that the student was not qualified for or did not deserve to be admitted to a school; however, legacy policies still have their root in discriminatory practices and do not have a place in today’s world.

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