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Powell: Dispelling legacy myths should help focus on access

In recent weeks, there has been a call for full disclosure about the role that “legacy” status plays in the college admission process at selective institutions. At Brown, legacy applicants are those whose mother or father, or both, received an undergraduate degree from the University, and who seek admission as first-year or transfer students.

Unfortunately, the full disclosure movement is based on long-held and entrenched misunderstanding about the role that legacy plays in the admission process. It has led to speculation that children of alums are admitted at the expense of students who will be the first in their families to attend college, low-income students or others who do not have an immediate connection to Brown. This couldn’t be further from reality. A focus on legacy admissions distracts from what is truly at the heart of the movement, which is how to increase access to Brown for low-income and first-generation students.

The questions that we must address include: How do we get more low-income and first-generation students to apply to Brown? How do we more strongly communicate that Brown is affordable, and that our institution wants to ensure they thrive here? And how do we encourage them to accept Brown’s offer of admission once they are admitted?

Dispelling myths about how Brown considers children of alums in its application process will let us focus squarely on these important questions. The full disclosure movement has asked for any and all documents related to our “policy” about how legacy applicants are considered in the admission process. There is no written policy about how applicants’ status as a child of an alum may be considered in their admission process, because they are reviewed like all other aspirants to Brown — one case at a time, and without the use of formulas or quotas.

First and foremost, we look for academic strength and intellectual curiosity. Our primary mission is to identify young minds that will ask new questions, create new knowledge and be active learners for life. Second, we closely review how students spend their time outside of class. For some, it may be student government; for others, working a part time job or taking care of younger siblings. Third, we seek to understand, from essays, letters of recommendation and alumni interviews, if the student is someone of strong character. This is of critical importance as we build a class and a community.

Only after we have established the foundation of these essential elements do we begin to layer a host of priorities that help guide our work in an ever-more selective admissions environment. We take a vast range of considerations into account, many of which receive more attention than whether or not a student’s parents attended Brown. We are dedicated to strengthening the visual and performing arts, and might look very closely at musicians when trying to identify the cellist who might be needed to fill out the orchestra. We seek out some of the most talented science students, innovators and humanists in the world. And as part of our commitment to building community at Brown, we pay special attention to children of Brown employees, whether that be a faculty member, a member of our grounds staff, or a library employee.

We consider how our student athletes spend innumerable hours training and competing, all while balancing the rigors of academic work. Veterans, children of active duty military and our ROTC cadets represent the very best of this country and are courageous in ways that many of us will never know. And we actively recruit students who will be the first in their families to attend college, because these students demonstrate determination, life experiences and traits of leadership that will help guide our society into the next generation.

So why do we also pay attention to whether an applicant is a child of a Brown alum? Many of these students grew up immersed in the values of Brown. They are often mentors and guides to other students in navigating the University. We see them giving back through BrownConnect by mentoring and developing internship opportunities for Brown students. And yes, they also support Brown’s priorities financially, though this is not the focus. All members of the campus and alumni community benefit from the unique attributes that children of Brown contribute.

And these students reflect the growing diversity of our campus and therefore our alumni base. One in five children of alums who enrolled at Brown this year are students of color. Over the past five years, 29 percent to 39 percent have been students on financial aid. They come from big cities and rural America.

It’s important to understand that each of the many factors outlined here is an example in which the talent or attribute may act as a “tie-breaker” in our process. In cases where an applicant is otherwise extremely well-qualified for admission, the fact that they are a first-gen, ROTC cadet, legacy, or talented artist may prompt us to lean in their direction to build the community that we know will flourish as they process through the Van Wickle Gates.

And this is how we build a diverse class that supports our goals of community. Admitting children of alums does not affect access for first-generation and low-income students. In the Class of 2021, 13 percent are first-generation, 40 percent are students of color and 11 percent are children of Brown alums. The simple reality is that presenting a trade-off between access to Brown for first-generation and low-income students and children of alums is a false dichotomy.

What does affect access is whether or not these talented students know that a place like Brown is possible for them. It’s whether they have the support to understand and navigate the admission process. It’s the availability of financial aid. And it’s resources like the First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center to help them thrive at Brown.

Our work is successful when we bring students from dramatically different backgrounds together on College Hill, where they will learn and grow together as a class. In the past two years, we have doubled the number of ROTC cadets admitted, doubled the funds available to bring low-income admitted students to campus for A Day on College Hill and increased from three to 30 the number of QuestBridge students (low-income and high achieving students) we admitted through the formal “match” process. And because we learned last year how much of an impact application fees can have, we have waived the application fee for any student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch in high school, or who works with a Community Based Organization focused on college access. In addition, increases in financial aid continue to make Brown more affordable, and all students next fall will have the University-packaged loans that used to be part of financial aid packages replaced with scholarships they don’t have to repay. This is through the Brown Promise initiative.

We can, and should, continue our commitment to increased accessibility to Brown. We will continue to expand our efforts to enroll even more low- and moderate-income and first-generation students. At the same time, we should continue to recognize the talents that our legacy applicants bring to campus. This is not a case of either/or. This is a tide that will continue to lift all students.

Logan Powell is Brown University’s Dean of Admission. He can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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