Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: Ending legacy admissions will help focus on access

Opinions Editor
Friday, April 6, 2018

In his March 5 op-ed, Dean of Admission Logan Powell argues that a fixation on legacy admission is a distraction from the University’s efforts to increase access for underrepresented groups on campus. Yet while Powell highlights much of the progress the University has made in expanding access to low-income and first-generation applicants, his piece is, itself, an effort at obfuscation. Despite his best efforts to disentangle the two, the University’s legacy admission policy and its efforts at increasing access to low-income and first-generation communities are intimately connected. The University, despite its earnest efforts at increasing diversity on campus, must end the use of legacy status in admission entirely if it hopes to truly create a meritocratic admission policy that places a premium on equal access for underrepresented communities.

Perhaps most central to Powell’s argument is the idea that legacy admission and expanding efforts to admit low-income students are not mutually exclusive. This is true in a very technical sense, but misleading. For instance, Powell is correct in noting that the University has been making good-faith efforts to expand financial aid to low-income students and take into consideration factors like low-income and first-generation status during the admission process. Though it is true that the University can expand on these efforts while simultaneously continuing its legacy admission policy, the latter is still an obstacle to its broader objective of increasing access. Fundamentally, every spot given to a legacy applicant is one that is not given to another applicant.

Of course, Powell attempts to preempt this argument by stating legacy status is one of many “tie-breakers.” But there is substantial evidence to suggest that this is generally untrue at elite universities. For instance, one Princeton study found that, among applicants to elite universities, having a parent that previously attended the university was equivalent to scoring an additional 160 points on the SAT. Similarly, one study of approximately 30 top universities in the United States found that legacy status increased an applicant’s chances of admission by 45 percent. Surely one cannot believe that Brown’s admission policy vis-a-vis legacy applicants is so different from its peers without hard evidence to substantiate the claim. And if Brown is, in fact, using legacy status as more than a tie-breaker, it becomes patently obvious that non-legacy applicants, including applicants from low-income and first-generation backgrounds, are being pushed aside.

Despite the length of his piece, Powell devotes very little time to defending the use of legacy status in the admission process. The defenses he does provide are facile. For instance, he argues that legacy students are uniquely equipped to guide other students through their time at the University, yet he provides no evidence to substantiate this claim, beyond the sanguine assumptions that legacy students are exceptionally knowledgeable about Brown and eager to serve as community mentors. What’s more, Powell notes that legacy applicants generally support the University’s financial priorities. According to several studies, this is generally not the case. In the book “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” contributor Chad Coffman notes that among several universities that dropped their legacy preference policies, there was consequently negligible fluctuation in alum donations.

In the ultimate analysis, using legacy status in the admission process is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it is profoundly unmeritocratic. While policies that seek to increase access for underrepresented groups are valuable to the extent that they allow talented and deserving students to compete in a system that is generally biased against them, considering legacy status in admission gives additional advantages to applicants that often already had substantial advantages to begin with. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, in defending the use of legacy status in the admission process, Powell and the University are undermining the very goal of access that they claim to value. This is not to question the University’s good-faith commitment to expanding access to underrepresented communities. But if we, as a community, want to cast off the legacy of elitism that is pervasive among top-tier universities and make our campus totally accessible to underrepresented groups, we must end legacy admission once and for all.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at Please send  responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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