Legacy Preference Admission Outdated and Unfair
By The Executive Board
As Tony Marx abandons us for New York books, we hope his program and message of diversity does not leave with him but is taken a step further by his successor, the faculty and the rest of the College community. While the College, and many other American institutions of higher learning, has in recent years placed a greater emphasis on equal opportunity and socioeconomic and racial diversity, there is still an antiquated and unnecessary vestige of privilege and entitlement lying unchallenged at cornerstone the College: legacy preference.

First off, we are by no means attacking legacy students, for they are talented, brilliant people who contribute to our vibrant campus. But the practice itself is outdated and unfair. Legacy students make up 12 percent of the Class of 2014 alone, and they generally constitute 10 to 25 percent at selective institutions, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. However, legacies most certainly did not make up 12 percent of the Class of 2014 applicant pool; of the 8,099 students who applied, 157 were legacies, nowhere near the 972 that would constitute 12 percent, pointing to an extremely disproportionate admittance rate in comparison to the general population. In fact, 56.7 percent of Class of ’14 legacy applicants were admitted, nearly four times more than the 15.3 percent overall admittance rate.

While advocates may argue that legacy students are more likely to be admitted regardless of their status due to the likeliness of a strong educational background by way of an Amherst-educated family member, this does not outweigh the inherent injustice of an aristocratic system that gives preference based on lineage. Moreover, by looking at schools without legacy preference, we can see a large disparity between the current rate and what would be the natural rate of legacy admittance. For example, at the California Institute of Technology, which is one of a handful of prestigious institutions that do not employ the practice, only 1.5 percent of students are children of alumni. Given that Caltech is an extremely competitive school just like Amherst, it is then apparent that legacy preference is inflating the number of legacy students at the College and giving them an unfair advantage over other talented students.

Though many colleges will argue legacy preference is not a major factor in their admissions decisions and that it is only used as a “tie-breaker” between equally qualified candidates, research by Princeton University Professor of Sociology Thomas Epsenshade suggests their weight is extremely significant, analogous to adding 160 SAT points to a candidate’s score on a 1600 scale. Similarly, the Mellon Foundation found that within a given SAT-score range — theoretically within a similar level of candidates — legacy status increased the chance of admission to a selective institution by 19.7 percentage points. These numbers only further reveal the inequity in the system that Amherst, as an institution that prides itself on openness and diversity, should eradicate.

On the practical side of the issue, legacies are seen, somewhat cynically, as a necessary way to support the financial stability and longevity of colleges, as alumni are more likely to donate if their children follow their footsteps. However, many schools that do not have legacy preference raise just as much money as their counterparts, such as Caltech, which received $71 million from alumni in 2008. In comparison, their direct competitor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which does practice legacy preference, raised $77 million in that year — only six million more than Caltech despite the fact that their student body, and thus alumni network, is five times larger. Studies done on the connection between alumni donation and legacy preference have found no real link between the two, and colleges that have recently eliminated the practice have not suffered substantial decreases in donation.

This problem is not just at Amherst, but at most liberal arts colleges and research universities across the nation, but that does not decrease the College’s culpability in the practice. As an institution that sees itself as a pioneer in accessibility for students, Amherst should not allow itself to remain steeped in an antiquated, unjust tradition that contradicts the fundamental principle of an equal playing field and flies directly in the face of the lofty values we purport to hold most dear.

Issue 07, Submitted 2010-10-27 04:14:53