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Students scrutinize legacy-based admission

#FullDisclosure campaign points to historical discrimination, little benefit to endowment

A coalition of student groups across 12 top colleges and universities issued a letter Feb. 14 announcing an effort to challenge legacy admission policies, which give preference to college applicants who are close relatives of alums. The campaign, called #FullDisclosure, asks universities to publicize all internal information about legacy admission policies and form committees of students, administrators and alums to reconsider the use of legacy status in admission, the coalition wrote in its letter.

The group argued in its letter that legacy admission policies are “rooted in discrimination, having been a tool used to reduce the rising Jewish population in elite colleges.” Further, the group countered the common claim that legacy admission policies encourage alums to donate to their alma maters by citing a study that found “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result of abolishing legacy preferences.”

“Anything that has no demonstrable value to the University, … has discriminatory origins and is unpopular, at the very least, deserves a reexamination,” said Shawn Young ’19.5, who is involved with coordinating the campaign at the University.

Dean of Admission Logan Powell defended the value that legacy students bring to campus in an op-ed published last Tuesday in The Herald. “Many of these (legacy) students grew up immersed in the values of Brown,” Powell wrote. “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.”

“All members of the campus and alumni community benefit from the unique attributes that children of Brown contribute,” Powell added.

Powell further wrote that the #FullDisclosure campaign is based on a “long-held and entrenched misunderstanding about the role that legacy plays in the admission process” and that the campaign’s focus on legacy admission distracts from the central issue of improving “access to Brown for low-income and first-generation students.”

Undergraduate Council of Students President Chelse-Amoy Steele ’18 disagreed with Powell. “I don’t think that (the #FullDisclosure campaign) distracts,” she said. “I think that it enriches the conversation and adds a needed complication to this narrative.”

Young also pushed back on Powell’s claims about the campaign in a follow-up email to The Herald. “Powell makes it seem as if #FullDisclosure is solely about increasing access for first-generation and low-income students,” he wrote. “I’d like to make it perfectly clear that #FullDisclosure is about ensuring equal opportunity for everyone and making this University the best it can be.”

Young and other students are pushing for UCS to hold a campus-wide referendum on legacy admission. UCS approved this proposal at its general body meeting last night, adding the question to its 2018 election ballot, The Herald reported.

If a two-thirds majority of the UCS voting body approves the measure, the referendum would be conducted through online voting similar to the procedure for UCS elections, said UCS Student Activities Chair William Zhou ’20, who is acting as the campaign’s liaison to UCS. Zhou noted that the results of a referendum would not directly result in any policy changes. “It’s more a way to show the administration where students lie on the issue,” he said.

By pushing for a campus-wide referendum, the #FullDisclosure campaign aims to “to start a conversation with the administration and with the Corporation about the use of legacy preference,” Young said. Specifically, Young hopes the University will form a “University-wide task force … to re-examine legacy preference.” To have an open conversation about legacy admission policies, the University must also release all the information it has about legacy admission, Young added.

In his op-ed, Powell countered the #FullDisclosure campaign’s call for transparency. “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,” Powell wrote.

“I find it a little hard to believe that there are no internally written policies to standardize the practice of admissions,” Young said. “At the very least, even if they don’t have hard data, … I want to see those memos.”

In an email to The Herald, Powell clarified the significance of legacy status in the admission process. “(Legacy) students, like all other students we admit, are academically strong and show great promise for the future,” Powell wrote. “The fact that they are children of Brown alumni is only a modest factor in the admission process and would never, on its own, be enough to garner an offer of admission.”

Former UCS president Viet Nguyen ’17 is a leading force behind the national #FullDisclosure campaign, Young said. “If (legacy students) have the (same) qualifications as other applicants, let them stand by those qualifications alone,” Nguyen wrote in an email to The Herald. “Why provide a leg up (to) those who already have an advantage?”

A 2004 study estimated that legacy status is roughly equivalent in value to an additional 160 points on the SAT in admission processes.

According to The Herald’s fall 2017 poll, 13.7 percent of undergraduate students are legacy students. But, “if (legacy status) really doesn’t have the kind of weight that people say it does, then there should be no problem with (the University) releasing all the data, all the policies and all the internally written memos to have everyone take a look at them,” Young said.

Admission officers at the University use legacy status as one of many “tie-breakers” when deciding between identical applicants, Powell wrote in his op-ed. Identifying as a first-generation college applicant is another tie-breaker, he added.

Outside of the tie-break consideration, public information on the University’s legacy admission policy is scarce. Zhou said this lack of information makes it difficult to develop a stance on legacy admission. The #FullDisclosure campaign wants the University to release more information on legacy admission so that people can “evaluate and form an opinion” on the issue, Zhou added.

Steele expressed concern that legacy admission policies could reinforce past discrimination in college admission. If legacy students “are granted more access” to higher education because their parents were able to attain admission to college, then “that is arguably discriminatory, because that leaves out a lot of folks who have been barred from institutions of higher education for hundreds of years,” Steele said. This leads to “a select group of people having a higher chance of being legacy and that group of people being racialized,” Steele added.

In his email to The Herald, Powell maintained that legacy students are increasingly diverse. “As the composition of our graduates changes, so too does the composition of our legacy applicants,” Powell wrote. “Legacy students now represent racial and socioeconomic diversity in ways that we have never seen in Brown history. In the past five years, almost 25 (percent) of enrolled legacies are also students of color. Likewise, as many as 35 (percent) of legacy students also qualified for financial aid.”

The Herald’s fall 2017 poll found that 78.4 percent of legacy students are white, while 51.7 percent of non-legacy students are white. Meanwhile, 72.6 percent of legacy students do not receive financial aid, while 46.3 percent of non-legacy students do not receive financial aid.

Steele expressed support for the #FullDisclosure campaign’s goal of starting a conversation between students and administrators about legacy admission. “I would hope that everybody who is invested in admissions is also willing to have this conversation that I think will truly dispel any negative tensions or questions and concerns,” she added.

Powell wrote in his email that he is open to further discussion of the issue with students. “Our interest is in direct dialogue and engagement with students who bring concerns to the University,” Powell wrote. “We have a strong history of this at Brown and would expect to enter a dialogue with students if they approach us directly.”


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