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University News

Students question use of legacy admission

Critics express concerns about fairness and privilege, while others say practice’s effects are small

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2014

Just over half of undergraduates disagree with the consideration of legacy status in the University’s admission decisions, according to the results of a Herald poll conducted March 3–­4. About 30 percent of students agree with the use of legacy status  — having a parent, grandparent or sibling who attended Brown — in admission, and 19 percent have no opinion.

Legacy students and varsity athletes were more likely to support legacy status’ use in admission, while those receiving financial aid from the University were less likely to do so.

Nearly half of legacy students agreed with the admission practice, with about 14 percent strongly agreeing, 34 percent somewhat agreeing, 20 percent somewhat disagreeing, 11 percent strongly disagreeing and 22 percent expressing no opinion. About 44 percent of varsity athletes — 14 percentage points higher than the general student body — agreed with the use of legacy status. Students who do not receive financial aid from the University are more likely to support legacy status use than are those who receive any combination of grants and loans.

Though Brown’s admission officers consider legacy status when making decisions, the Office of Admission does not track the acceptance rate for any subgroup of students, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73.

Legacy students usually make up “between 10 and 12 percent of the incoming class,” and admitted students with legacy status tend to enroll at higher rates than the rest of the admitted pool, Miller said.

Having a parent who attended Brown comes into play when applicants “are essentially equivalent,” in which case admission officers “will tilt toward the candidate whose parents attended the college,” Miller said. Admission officers give “small” consideration to grandparent legacy status and “almost no” weight to sibling legacy cases, he added.

But the University does not admit unqualified students on the basis of legacy status or any other criteria, Miller said. “We will never bring a student here we do not think will be successful,” he said.

Many students said they agree that consideration of legacy status is acceptable only if applicants are qualified for admission on the basis of merit.

“It definitely shouldn’t play a large role in admissions … but I don’t think it’s a huge problem,” said Mary O’Connor ’16. The college admission process can “seem a little randomized” so it is difficult to tell why any individual was accepted, she added.

Emily Reif ’16 said considering legacy status on its own would be unfair, but many legacy applicants possess strong qualifications and merit admission. Some students may think their peers with family members who attended Brown do not deserve admission spots, but this can be an unfair perception, she said.

Samantha Wong ’17, a first-generation college student, said she does not have a problem with the use of legacy status and there is value to having students with legacy in a class.

Taking legacy status into consideration is a long-standing admission practice, Miller said.

“The rationale is that Brown as an institution depends on the kindness of others,” he said. Considering legacy status helps build a sense of community in which alums are willing to donate time and resources to the University, he added.

Some universities use legacy consideration in hopes of growing their endowments through increasing alum donations, both of which factor into major college ranking systems like the one developed by U.S. News and World Report, said Michele Hernandez, a college consultant and former assistant director of admission at Dartmouth.

But no research or evidence supports the premise that alum parents are more likely to give to a college if their children also attend, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who focuses on education issues.

The use of legacy status is likely to continue at Brown. Though the Admission Office frequently reviews its policies, there are no immediate plans to stop considering legacy status, Miller said.

But concerns about improving fairness in college admission practices continue to shape the debate over legacy applications.

As affirmative action admission practices increasingly come under judicial review, legacy practices could also face pressure, Kahlenberg said.

Education experts have varying opinions on the use of legacy in admission and the impacts of the practice.

Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University, said legacy consideration can be useful for building community and continuing alum giving but should be used “with discretion.”

“We have an institution that has been built over hundreds of years … through the labor and love of students, alumni and parents,” he said. “This needs to be taken into consideration but in an appropriate amount.”

But to some, legacy status privileges applicants who already have a socioeconomic leg up.

“Legacy acceptance is very difficult to justify,” Kahlenberg said. “It tends to advantage a group of students who are already quite advantaged by the fact that their parents attended one of the best universities in the country.”

Hernandez called the use of legacy in admissions “unfair,” but both she and Trachtenberg said the policy’s detractors exaggerate its impact.

Many different subcategories of students receive special preferences, Hernandez noted. Recruited athletes, for example, are more likely to receive a big “tip” in the admission process than are students with legacy status, who often have stronger academic credentials than those without legacy status, she said.

“It’s not a big bump,” she added. “I think if people understood that, they wouldn’t care as much.”

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  1. Curent students would probably be against use of legacy, but see how quickly they will change when their kid applies with an 8% acceptance rate. Legacy students are more likely to attend, more likely to graduate, more likely to donate, more likely to tell others to apply, and more likely to be happy with their choice.

    • Any citations for any of that? I don’t really know enough, but my opinion would depend on outcomes (as yours also seems to), but from where are you getting these facts?

  2. The reason israel is vilified for protecting its women and children from the mighty muslim murdererscan be described in far fewer column-inches. They’re JEWS, you know?!
    Makes all the difference in the world-especially to neo- NAZI euro-weenies who still regret the loss of their beloved SS with their pretty uniforms and delicious boot polish.

  3. Carl Kraut says:

    You are getting too far in front. First you must question admissions of cheaters, and giving them financial aid. Then you must question why they are kept here at all. Go ahead, question it. All the deans know about it. The admissions office knows about it. Then they will dare you to give specific information. Get them to the point of daring people, publicly, to give specific information. Information had been offered in private, but they still do not act on the offer.

  4. Annoyed Alum says:

    I love this. “Fosters a sense of community.” Okay. The phrase “old boys’ club” is one used all the time to describe systems of admission/membership like this. Sure, it might “foster a sense of community.” That’s what a “club” is. A community. But it’s wrong. As all of the articulate quotes in this article explain. Lots of things foster a sense of community that the university is against (rightfully). Hazing. Underage alcohol use. You don’t get to do things or implement policies that are wrong just to foster community.

    • Not a legacy alum says:

      did you seriously just equate considering legacy status in admissions with HAZING? Let me guess, you’d consider: “The Nazi’s had a strong community sense. Do we want to be like them?” a strong argument against it too wouldn’t you? Give me a break. There are valid arguments against legacy status being considered but yours couldn’t be less valid if you tried.

      • Honey Bop Bop says:

        Annoyed Alum wasn’t equating them, but his point is pretty valid- not everything that fosters a sense of community is ethically correct, which is what he/she was saying. Don’t know if you misunderstood that.
        Annoyed Alum’s point is actually a good one- it seems wrong to admit applicants using whether or not their parents went there in some effort to ‘foster community’ as Miller says in the article. Plenty of other applicants ‘foster community’ for their own accomplishments that have little to do with their parents- whether through leadership roles, athletics, etc.

        I wish someone had just come out and said it’s about the money. this ‘fostering community’ stuff is BS. Admitted child=Happy parents= Brown gets money. Often legacies are smart kids in their own right and should obviously be admitted, but there are definitely legacies that don’t deserve to be here.

        • Student2 '17 says:

          Legacy IS about community – and that’s not bad. It’s surely about money, too, but to imply that the university is choosing to “stuff its pockets” instead of offering deserving, brilliant, yet socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants places at Brown is to take the legacy tradition out of context. Universities will always be political institutions, especially the wealthy and prestigious ones like ours. Brown can only perpetuate its prestige – and the opportunity and exclusivity that comes with it – by maintaining long-term, reciprocal, deeply invested relationships with their alumni. The award-winning faculty, the guest speakers, the financial aid awards, the funds that go into research and facilities and Brown-only internship opportunities, the CareerLAB and connections that every student will carry for the rest of their lives– those are made
          possible and perpetual by building a community of alumni that want to stay involved with their alma matter. And connecting with successful alumni helps not only the university, but also us, the current students who are trying to find jobs in a fragile economy and opportunities to do what we love.

          And maybe that makes Brown an “old boys’ club” – but what else can it be? Brown CANNOT maintain its level of academic quality and opportunity by making decisions purely on applicants’ accomplishments because it simply can’t help every smart person who applies – so it mind as well take REALLY good care of the students that it can. It’s incredibly insulting to suggest that some people here don’t deserve this privilege as much as others because of their families or because they’re not “smart enough,” because that standard of “smartness” and privilege is fostered by an alumni community – one which we are all a part of, and one from which we directly benefit from every day, whether you like it or not.

  5. Honeybooboo says:

    There needs to be a more discriminating legacy admissions policy, but doing away with it altogether wouldn’t make much sense. It makes sense that legacies’ children may be smart and well accomplished, if there parents instill those values in their children. Thus, Emily Reif’s argument that legacy applicants may simply be more likely to be well qualified is a good one- BUT it often differs, in my experience, in practice.

    What I DONT like to see that I see a lot of at Brown are legacies who are really, really stupid. I don’t often use that word, but there are definitely a handful of kids I have had classes with who are not smart enough to be here- you know who I mean. Those kids you Facebook who went to fancy prep schools and posh friends, but who you have in a class and they can barely put together a sentence.
    Even outside these really, really stupid legacies, some of my legacy friends are a little less smart than my non-legacy ones- not all, but some definitely. Of the few friends whose SAT scores I know, the two with scores that are slightly lower than Brown’s average are children of rich legacies. Coincidence? I think not! If admissions were not so terribly competitive, I would be more willing to give the administration a pass, but at an 8% acceptance rate, every spot counts.

    One kind of case that was not talked about are twins and siblings whose sibling is applying to or at Brown. Here, if they have very comparable qualifications, it seems to make sense to let both in or neither in (I know this is Brown’s policy)- being rejected would be much more emotionally taxing if your sibling got in and you didn’t, rather than being rejected if your dad went to Brown 20 years ago.

  6. I was not a legacy student, but I recognize that legacies provide an important element of institutional continuity. (Perhaps that’s even more important at Brown than at other schools where rituals and traditions play a more prominent role.) In any case, the legacy debate involves more than getting an edge during admissions or fostering alumni giving.

    So long as legacies are well qualified to attend Brown, their cultural contribution to campus life is that they’ve known about Brown (and perhaps even visited campus) throughout their childhoods. It’s one of the many diverse cultural and biographical ingredients that make up the mix of students on campus. What legacy students bring with them through the Van Wickle gates can benefit the entire student body’s experience at Brown in important ways.

  7. Miller says the admissions office doesn’t track the acceptance rate of any subgroup of applicants, but they can clearly track the information for gender ( Why not legacy, then?

  8. Student '17 says:

    I was against legacy before I got in, but now that I got in, I want legacy for my kids. I am posting this anonymously because it’s selfish, but it’s true. Legacy kids still deserve to go here – all applicants to Brown are pretty much stellar. It’s a crapshoot these days and I consider myself lucky. I won’t roll the dice with my children though.

  9. Douglas Keith says:

    I think there should be a rule: any university that admits less than, say, 12% of applicants is not allowed to admit ANY children of graduates. If you want to Harvard, then your kids are not allowed to go there. That’s my position, and I’m sticking to it!

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