guest post: “legacy” admissions vs familial capital and the importance of precision

The following is a guest post by @polumechanos

As questions about the future of affirmative action once again rise to the surface of the water cooler talk on the internet, there has been a concomitant rise in excoriations of legacy admissions as “affirmative action for white people” and “the real affirmative action.” Most recently, a freelance writer tweeted some of the results of The Harvard Crimson’s survey of the entering freshman class of 2021, focusing on a figure representing the percentages of students in the entering class who have various familial ties to alumni of Harvard College. Based on the survey data, Murphy reported that the percentage of legacies in the entering class is an eye-popping 41.2%. Shocking, right? (or perhaps not, depending on how cynical you are about elite higher ed).

But let’s take a step back, because there’s more than meets the eye with this figure and the accompanying tweet(s).

First, it’s important to acknowledge that that the Crimson has issued a correction (see below), reporting that, in fact, 70.7% of the surveyed students have no familial connection to Harvard College, and that 30.3% are legacies (although of course, some quick mental addition reveals that that 30.3% should probably be 29.3%).

Even that 29.3% figure isn’t as simple or as accurate as it seems, however. It’s worth noting that the Crimson‘s data is self-reported survey data, and that only about half of the entering class responded to the survey. The Crimson is an undergraduate student newspaper, so it’s one thing for them to publish survey data. It’s quite another, however, for journalists and academics to uncritically quote and cite that data without acknowledging its limitations and the need to tread carefully when making claims about what this data tells us. While I’m sensitive to the fact that official numbers are difficult to find, if available at all, and I would urge Harvard to be more transparent, I must underscore that it does our cause no favors to stake strong claims on shaky ground.

Second, that 29.3% figure can only be arrived at by using what I called “the broadest possible definition” of legacy: counting as “legacy” anyone who has any relative who has attended Harvard College. Using such a definition is misleading because it is not the one Harvard itself uses. If the issue at hand is familial capital or the denseness of social networks that enable some students to have access to a place like Harvard while others are left outside the gates, perhaps such a definition is appropriate – and that conversation is certainly an important one to have. But “legacy admissions,” which Murphy links the Crimson data to, and which most of those retweeting him are using this data to speak to, is a specific policy, with a well-bounded definition. If we’re trying to have a discussion about the effects of legacy admissions policies on the entering class at an elite institution of higher education, it’s critical that we be precise in the language we use to describe who benefits from that policy.

How does Harvard define “legacy” for admissions purposes? As with so many aspects of the selective admissions process, this is weirdly shrouded in shadow and secrecy. However, I reached out to a colleague who works in Harvard College’s admissions office, and they confirmed that for the purposes of admissions, Harvard College defines legacy as those whose parents attended Harvard College for undergrad (college admission forums also bear this out, for what it’s worth). This is a much narrower definition than the one Murphy used; it’s worth noting that this narrower definition excludes the grandchildren of alumni, does not count more distant familial ties or those in the same generation (e.g. siblings), and rules out the children of graduate school alumni from receiving legacy preferences.

Definitions of legacy vary from institution to institution, however. At some institutions, applicants are asked to list any and all family members who are alumni. At others, children with alumni parents and grandparents count, but other ties aren’t considered. At still others, all information on familial alumni ties is solicited, but some ties are given more weight than others. Definitions of “legacy” vary across the sector because institutions define “legacy” in ways that best serve their needs.

Ultimately, legacy preferences are about maintaining ties that will be lucrative or otherwise productive for the institution. It would be a mistake to underestimate the rapacious acquisitiveness of a place like Harvard and the lengths to which it might go to continue to feather its 37-billion-dollar nest. That said, legacy preference isn’t usually about the Jared Kushners of the world, thankfully. While it is true that the firewalls between admissions and development do break down, I want to push back on the idea that Aunt Sally donating $50 or even $500 every year somehow gets her niece a better shot at Harvard. While I saw some applicants with the right last name get an extra boost during my time in admissions, the reality is that most legacies who are admitted do so not through pay-to-play mechanisms, but through far more insidious manifestations of privilege given weight by societal ideas about and metrics of “merit.” Consider, for example, what types of students are most likely to be recruited for the squash or tennis teams, or who has access to “good” suburban public schools that offer AP classes and frequently send students on to elite institutions of higher ed, or who has been groomed in the sort of deportment and self-presentation that are valued by admissions officers and alumni interviewers alike – all things that, even without a specific legacy admissions policy, tend to advantage those wealthy in economic, social, and cultural capital.

I want to close by making clear that I am not defending the machinery of selective admissions in general or the policy of legacy preferences specifically. I have tweeted extensively about the myriad ways in which elite institutions like Harvard, despite their stated commitments to diversity and access, nonetheless maintain structures and policies and cultures that make it much more likely for privileged students, perhaps especially those with familial ties, to make it to Cambridge. There is a vital and necessary ongoing conversation – in both the popular press and in academic circles – about how privilege opens the door to the ivy-covered towers of elite institutions while disadvantage constantly flings obstacles in the path of those less fortunate. We should continue to interrogate how elite universities reward the already-advantaged. But in so doing, we should be careful not to conflate issues that are related, but distinct. Legacy preferences are a problem, but not all the advantages that accrue to those with familial ties to elite institutions can or should be distilled to “legacy admissions” issues. In critiquing selective admissions, we can do better than using unsystematically-collected data to advance claims that are, at best, incomplete and at worst, inaccurate.

@polumechanos is a former admissions officer and student affairs professional. She is now a PhD student at Harvard University studying race, inequality, culture, and education.



Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

4 thoughts on “guest post: “legacy” admissions vs familial capital and the importance of precision”

  1. There are a lot of “legacy” students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, about 18% of the freshman class, defined as parents are UW grads. I don’t know the weight this is given in admissions, although the gross percentage of applicants admitted as well as the yield (percent of admitted who attend) are both substantially higher for legacies, 70% vs 51% for admission rate and 56% vs 35% for yield rate. (These reports are published annually and accessible from inside the university. The reports also track first generation, race/ethnicity, and instate/outstate.) In addition to the Wisconsin families that have a tradition of attending UW Madison, there are East Coast families, primarily Jewish, who also have this tradition, which dates from the 1920s when the Ivy League schools imposed quotas on Jews while Wisconsin Madison had no quota.


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