On Feb. 14, the #FullDisclosure campaign — a coalition of student organizations from 12 colleges across the country that has been significantly influenced by former Undergraduate Council of Students president Viet Nguyen ’17 — issued a letter asking universities to release their internal data on policies regarding legacy status consideration. In its letter, the campaign also suggested that universities create committees of administrators, students and alums to critically evaluate the influence of legacy status in admission. We commend the national campaign’s efforts to bring increased transparency to the admission process with respect to legacy applicants and hope that the University moves to enact its recommendations.
A close examination of legacy status consideration is necessary. A 2004 study found that legacy status provides the same boost as an additional 160 points on the SAT, providing a specific group of applicants with a substantial advantage in the admission process. As a 2014 Herald editorial argued, legacy status consideration has historically been used to exclude students of underrepresented backgrounds from higher education. Today, many students assert that the policy discriminates against those whose parents may not have had the opportunity to attend an elite university.
University administrators claim that they consider legacy status only as a tie-breaking attribute — of equivalent value to, for example, athletic or artistic achievement — and that they do not maintain explicit policies about legacy status consideration. But without actual data, it is difficult to assess the validity of these claims or reach informed conclusions about the effect that legacy status has in the admission process.
In a March 5 op-ed published in The Herald, Dean of Admission Logan Powell defended the practice of legacy status consideration, arguing that legacy students “grew up immersed in the values of Brown,” serve as mentors for their peers, give back with internship opportunities on BrownConnect and support Brown financially. But these justifications for the use of legacy status in admission are problematic in their own right. First, applicants’ future giving should not be considered, even slightly, in the admission process. Second, there is little evidence to suggest that eliminating legacy preferences will reduce donations from alums in the short term. And thirdly, that the University would want to admit only students with extensive exposure to the “values of Brown” seems to undermine its purported commitments to diversity and the full inclusion of students from all communities — including those that are different from Brown.
The recommendations set forth by the #FullDisclosure campaign can dispel misinformation about legacy status consideration, clarify the terms of the debate and democratize the conversation to include more members of the Brown community. Notably, the campaign is not advocating for the immediate and unequivocal termination of legacy status consideration. Rather, its proponents simply seek a transparent and publicly accountable analysis of a potentially discriminatory admission policy. If its admission policies are fair, then the University has good reason to publish its data. In any case, the University should not ground its decision to prefer a certain group of applicants in a highly selective admission process in factually dubious claims.
Students have already taken major steps to realize the vision of #FullDisclosure here at Brown. On March 14, UCS approved a proposal to hold a referendum on the policy reforms recommended by the #FullDisclosure campaign. We urge students, both those for and against the use of legacy status in admission, to vote in support of the reforms. While the non-binding referendum cannot directly force the University to release internal information about admissions — should the results be in favor of the #FullDisclosure campaign — a campus-wide, transparent re-evaluation of legacy status consideration will empower all students with the facts they need to make educated judgments about Brown admission.
This editorial was written by members of The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Mili Mitra ’18 and Grace Layer ’20. Rhaime Kim ’20, also a member of the editorial page board, was not involved in the drafting of this editorial. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.