Though both my parents pursued degrees in higher education, my dad was the one who went to college in America. He went to a school similar to Brown, and one that I was moderately interested in attending when I was choosing colleges. Since I had legacy — I was the child of an alum — everyone told me I would likely be admitted. My guidance counselor pushed me to apply there early, my friends told me how lucky I was that I had an in, and even my mom told me she was secretly thankful for my sake that she had married someone who went to college there. All of this ultimately resulted in me not wanting to go to this school — not because it was a bad fit for me, but because I thought if I got in, I wouldn’t have earned it. I ended up choosing Brown instead, since I felt like Brown wanted me for who I was, and that I didn’t deserve my acceptance to the other school. Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t. Either way, higher education institutions — Brown in particular — should stop engaging in legacy preferences, because they make it harder for students to feel like they belong at college and for administrators to meet their own standards of diversity and equity.
Legacy admissions can actually harm the student experience at colleges like Brown. In 2014, The Herald ran a poll asking for students’ opinions about legacy as a factor in admissions. A little over half of students disagreed with the practice of using legacy, 30.5 percent agreed with its use and the remaining students had no opinion; Students receiving financial aid from the University were even less likely to support legacy policies. It is easy to understand why legacy admissions are so unpopular. Students who are children of alums often feel self-conscious about their legacy status.
Brown’s legacy preferences also skew the composition of the student body, putting underserved students at a disadvantage for admissions and, in turn, compromising the University’s ability to meet its own diversity goals. In February 2016, the University published a plan of action entitled, “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion.” In the section of the plan that justified why these actions were necessary, the University found that, “institutions of higher education, including Brown, have traditionally failed to include fully people of all races, ethnicities, creeds, socioeconomic classes, gender identities, sexual orientations and disability statuses. To confront this reality and its enduring legacies, the University is committing to transform the policies, structures and practices that have led to the exclusion — rather than the meaningful inclusion — of members of the community.” One such policy that has contributed to the exclusion of underrepresented members of the community, but has gone unexamined by the administration, is legacy admissions. Let’s not pretend that legacy practices at selective universities have a negligible impact. Just this past week, The Harvard Crimson reported that over 29 percent of its class of 2021 are legacy students. In a 2014 Herald article, former dean of admissions Jim Miller ’73 said that legacy students made up between 10 and 12 percent of incoming students each year at Brown.
Yet, the action plan — which, to its credit, does discuss the importance of reaching out to and meeting the special needs of underrepresented students and did incorporate feedback from the community — makes no mention of legacy admissions. In a letter introducing the report, President Christina Paxson P’19 notes that the plan “calls for a doubling of graduate students from historically underrepresented groups” and “improvements in outreach and recruiting for undergraduates from underrepresented groups.” But the University cannot meaningfully offer more opportunities to underrepresented students so long as it clings to legacy admissions, one of the prime engines of inequality. In fact, though many of the “actionable items” in the plan were targeted toward first-generation college students — including supporting their living expenses, creating a first-generation student center and increasing mentorship for first-generation students — these steps cannot alone diversify the admitted undergraduate student body. Unless the University reconsiders its legacy policy, the student body will not be representative of the broader population. For example, first-generation college students constitute only 13 percent of the class of 2021, but over 60 percent of American adults have not obtained a college degree. This is a major inconsistency, and Brown today, despite its stated objectives, is still failing to include people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Prestigious colleges defend legacy practices as necessary to raise money and maintain their reputation — it makes sense that alums who have gone to the same school for many generations would be more willing to donate and support a variety of programs. But it turns out that rolling back legacy preferences does not have a negative impact on their finances. Chad Coffman, a contributor to a book called “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” found that at seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences between 1998 and 2008, there was “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result.” Institutions in Europe, such as Oxford University and the University of Cambridge, got rid of this outdated practice long ago, and their prestige remains completely intact. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology does not consider legacy, and still has a $13.2 billion endowment, supported by venture capital funds, private equity investments and, of course, alum donations. Alums continue to donate not because they need to secure their child a place at their alma mater, but because they are excited for incoming students to have the same experiences they did, regardless of their race, socioeconomic standing and college education. After all, isn’t creating an appropriately diverse and qualified student body really what the admissions process is all about? And shouldn’t we do as much as we can to meet our goals of increasing student diversity? The first and most obvious step in achieving these aims — at Brown and at other institutions of higher education — is to get rid of legacy practices in the admission process.
Lena Renshaw ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.