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Students call for end to legacy admissions

National #LeaveYourLegacy initiative calls for donation boycott

Students for Educational Equity is leading a campaign demanding that the University stop considering legacy status as a factor in the admissions process. The #LeaveYourLegacy initiative is part of a broader national effort led by EdMobilizer, an education nonprofit founded by Viet Andy Nguyen ’17 that advocates for first-generation, low-income and undocumented students. 

SEE launched its campaign at Brown with a text and email banking meeting Sept. 28.

The national initiative aims to eliminate legacy preference through a donation boycott. EdMobilizer provides interested students and alums an email template addressed to University leaders, including President Christina Paxson P’19, Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01, Dean of Admission Logan Powell and members of the Corporation.

With various subject lines, including “Supporting Marginalized Students,” the templates state that the sender is a current student or alum and is voicing their support for the campaign. “Legacy admissions preferences are an antiquated practice that benefits students that are more likely to be white, affluent, and well-resourced. Until this is rectified, I will be refusing to donate in the future and will be organizing my friends and classmates as well,” it continues. 

This work comes after the EdMobilizer’s 2018 #FullDisclosure campaign, which demanded more transparency from universities about how much weight legacy status has in admission. That spring, the undergraduate student body voted in favor of a referendum asking that the University disclose all information and data about the role legacy status plays in admissions, The Herald previously reported

SEE shared various infographics on their social media pages supporting their position, citing research from Harvard and the Century Foundation. According to these posts, legacy admission does not lead to greater alumni donations or more robust financial aid funding at elite universities, legacies are overwhelmingly white and wealthy and are 3.13 times more likely to be accepted than non-legacies. 

University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald that 10 percent of the class of 2025 are children of Brown alums. He added that 15 percent are first-generation students, and 48 percent are students of color.

For SEE members involved in this effort, ending legacy preference in the admission process is a crucial step in making the University a more equitable and accessible place. 

Zoe Fuad ’23.5, SEE co-president, sees legacy admissions as a continuation of the University’s discriminatory past. “Brown has always been a predominantly white, wealthy institution from its very inception ... and as we try to sort of move away from that model of education, and as we try to diversify, it’s clearly inequitable to be giving preference to children of the alumni who come from those generations,” she said. “We’re not going to dismantle inequity if we keep giving preference to the descendants of those who benefited from inequity in the first place.”

SEE member Luka Callicotte ’23 said that legacy preference perpetuates racism. “Point blank, legacy admissions is a structure of white supremacy, and it continues white hegemony in the Brown community,” they said.

Other students not involved with SEE shared their enthusiasm for the campaign and agreed that legacy preference is unfair. 

Carlos Tejada ’22, co-president of the Afro-Latinx Alliance, hopes that stopping the consideration of legacy status in the admission process will “level the playing field” and allow for more students of diverse backgrounds to attend the University. But he said he suspected the strength of the administration’s resolve in continuing to consider legacy status stems from the financial potential of legacy families as donors. 

“So when thinking of it as what’s going to make you more money, is it going to be the rich legacies or the poor Black kids?” he asked. “So we see that (the University) only really cares about maintaining the business before maintaining the education system.” 

Some legacy students themselves voiced their support for eliminating the practice. 

“There’s no reason why the students that are qualified but don’t have parental connections here shouldn’t get in. I think that that kind of undermines the promise of a meritocracy,” Peter Zubiago ’22 said. He added that, although his father attended the University, he didn’t think his legacy status impacted his admission decision significantly because his family has never donated to the University. 

Nell Salzman ’22 supports the campaign as she believes it promotes diversity and “feels weird” about being a legacy herself. She shared that last weekend, when her parents came to visit, they discussed the effort. “We just talked about how strange it feels that this is part of college admissions and how wrong it is,” she said. “People should be judged for other things and looked at holistically instead of based on what their parents did.” 

Other stakeholders on campus support maintaining the practice and counter the notion that legacy admissions makes Brown a less accessible place. 

Powell said that recruiting more first-generation and low-income students does not contradict taking legacy status into consideration. “This is not zero-sum,” he said. “Any policy that Brown University has regarding legacy applicants has nothing to do with our policies regarding the admission and recruitment of first-gen and low-income students.”

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He explained that continuing legacy admission maintains connections with alums. “We want to keep that alumni relationship strong, while continuing to emphasize that we are an office of admission that focuses on academic excellence and diversity of perspective. But those two things don’t need to be mutually exclusive,” he said. “It’s not so much what we have to lose — we are always focused on ways we can continue to gain.” 

A University response sent in reply to a message in support of the SEE campaign that was shared with The Herald echoed this point. “The consideration of legacy status is a very, very small consideration compared to other attributes, and it’s important to note that any trade-off in admission is actually not between first-gen and low-income applicants vs. legacy applicants. Rather, it’s between equally-well-qualified applicants (often from the same high school) whose parent went to Brown versus those whose parent attended another highly selective university,” according to the message.

“In these cases, we feel it’s appropriate to tilt toward the applicant whose parent went to Brown. Legacy applicants are far more likely than children whose parents went to other Ivies and selective schools to accept Brown offers of admission, and it builds strength in the alumni community and alumni loyalty,” it continues. “One of the several clear and direct benefits of this loyalty is the robust fundraising for financial aid that unquestionably benefits low- and moderate-income students.” 

Betty Vaughan P’23 described herself as “the opposite of a legacy parent” and said she supports legacy admission because that money can help low-income families like her own. “The money that you get from legacy parents is going to help you to have students go to school on scholarship, and if I was in charge, I would make sure that money was funneled to students who are struggling with paying their bill,” she said. 

Fuad rebuked this claim, saying that multiple studies have disproved the notion that legacy admissions leads to increased fundraising for financial aid. 

Powell pushed back against the popular notion that many legacies are less academically qualified than their non-legacy peers. “We don’t admit students who aren’t academically qualified, and certainly with legacy applicants, their academic credentials are, by and large, really stellar,” he said. 

SEE contradicts this notion, sharing information from a 2020 Duke University analysis of legacies and athletes at Harvard, claiming that 75 percent of white legacies and athletes would not have gotten in without legacy preference. 

Both Powell and Fuad said that the Admission Office does not have the power to unilaterally decide how legacy status factors into admission decisions. “There are some larger institutional voices and constituencies who are involved in this dialogue. It’s not just an admission issue,” Powell said. “I think it’s important to point out that, number one, I, single handedly, don’t make the decision about what our legacy policy should be. It’s a conversation that’s informed by other conversations with senior leaders at the University.” 

Fuad said that one of the primary challenges of the campaign right now is determining who in University leadership is capable of changing this policy and how it functions. She said that Powell is “clearly devoted to equity and access” but that the issue rests in how much power the Admission Office has in changing this policy. 

She said that there is “a lot of obscurity” around Brown’s admissions policies, including the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan’s goal to increase enrollment of underrepresented students by 50% and in the role of legacy in admission. She noted that while there is data from other elite universities depicting the advantage granted by legacy, the University has not disclosed this data. 

“Though true that first generation students made up 15% of the Class of 2025, I think it’s highly likely that the number of first-generation students that applied is much higher than the number of legacy students. In other words, for Brown to claim real equity, it needs to release the acceptance rates for legacy students versus those that are not. For reference, legacy students make up around 14 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate body, which equated to a 34 percent acceptance rate (5x higher than their non-legacy acceptance rate),” Fuad wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. 

Powell said he has not been in contact with any representative from SEE but that he would “welcome a dialogue with them.” 

SEE hopes to increase attention for the #LeaveYourLegacy campaign on campus and among alums, Fuad said. She added that they aim to garner endorsements from affinity and student groups, student government organizations like the Undergraduate Council of Students and prominent donors.

Fuad said she hopes that this campaign will make Brown think more critically about its admissions process. For her, changing university admissions is “one of the most obvious ways of expanding opportunity and equity and dismantling these elitist hierarchies.”

-Additional reporting from Will Kubzansky

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the graduation year of Zoe Fuad '23.5. The Herald regrets the error.



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