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Few elite colleges in the midst of choosing their freshman classes like to admit how often they give preference to legacy applicants, a practice that largely benefits higher-income students and by some estimates can double or even quadruple an applicant’s chances of getting in.

That’s why I should not have been surprised that most colleges I asked about this wouldn’t talk about it or release their data. They have reasons: giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni who can most afford to pay clearly benefits colleges, and is not something they want to broadcast when the pandemic is complicating budgets and enrollment predictions.

And let’s face it: exclusive colleges and universities with annual costs as high as $80,000 have already endured an awful lot of bad publicity. Weren’t the lies and cheating of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal supposed to usher in a new era of transparency, with all those promises of an overhaul to follow?

Was I wrong in thinking that these colleges should have plenty of reasons to revisit legacy preferences, amid new diversity and inclusion efforts?

That they’d want to counter fears about the pandemic widening the class and race divides that deny low-income and minority students entrance into the very schools that boost social mobility?

That they’d want to address high-profile calls to end the practice, including student-led petition drives like the one at Georgetown University last summer, signed by hundreds of faculty, students and administrators? Or the push-back from students at Brown and Harvard universities, and the proposal that colleges practicing legacy admission lose their eligibility for federal student aid?

Hard as I tried, I could not find out how many legacy applicants were accepted early decision this year at some of the most sought-after colleges in the country, even though decisions were made by December. Most claimed they did not have this information available, including Yale University, Harvard University, Duke University, Stanford University, Hamilton College, Amherst College and Cornell University, among others.

Related: After ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal, lots of talk about overhauling college admissions. Will there be action?

“Colleges are kind of in a bind about this,” Richard Kahlenberg, author of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences for College Admissions,  and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told me.  “I’m not surprised that they don’t want to talk about it.”

Neither is Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University and the author of The Diversity Bargain. “I really don’t understand why it hasn’t ended already, because it is so absurd,” Warikoo told me. “It kind of destroys the legitimacy of admissions. We say it’s a meritocracy and fair, but clearly it is not.”

Tiffani Torres, a freshman at Georgetown University, thinks legacy admissions offer an unfair advantage. Credit: Megan Owusu

There are arguments on the other side, too. While legacy admission policies overwhelmingly benefit white, wealthy students whose parents can afford full tuition or can give donations, the practice can also build the kind of loyalty and enduring connections that help colleges over the long run.

And admitting legacy students also helps fund scholarships, said Angel Pérez, chief executive officer of NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which just formed a commission on redesigning admission and financial aid through a racial equity lens.

“If I am sitting in the [admissions] chair, I would not be doing away with legacy, because all of my goals to admit more low-income kids would be in jeopardy,” said Pérez, who previously oversaw admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut and Pitzer College in California. Legacy admissions foster lifelong loyalties and are a direct result of the way colleges are financed, with so much dependence on tuition revenue, he added.

“If I am sitting in the [admissions] chair I would not be doing away with legacy, because all of my goals to admit more low-income kids would be in jeopardy.” 

Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer, National Association for College Admission Counseling

The pandemic has dealt additional economic blows to colleges during a time when they were already worried about declining enrollment and the fiscal health of their institutions. Following years of building booms, spending sprees and tuition discounting to attract students, most colleges need full-pay students now more than ever, something The Hechinger Report’s financial tracker tool makes clear. (Just plug in the name of a college to see how it is faring.)

Related: How higher education’s own choices left it vulnerable to the pandemic crisis

But not elite schools. They have seen a boom in applications this year, at a time when the number of applicants to less-selective colleges and universities is dropping and there are worrisome signs of more trouble ahead, including a 9.1 percent decrease in the number of students who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and a drop of 2 percent in the number of early-decision applicants whose family incomes were low enough for them to request fee waivers.

Selective schools like Tulane University in New Orleans are touting record numbers of applicants – more than 45,000 at Tulane, some 4,000 of them early decision, for what will ultimately be a freshman class of about 1,820. Tulane’s president, Michael Fitts, called them “…the best and the brightest young scholars from around the country.”

Tulane would not answer how many admitted students in the early applicant pool were legacies; a spokesman saying it was “just one of many factors considered in our holistic review process.”

Ayana Smith, 17, was deferred early decision at her first-choice school, Tulane University in New Orleans, and is not a fan of legacy admissions. Credit: Tony Sibley

Before applying to Tulane, Ayana Smith, a 17-year-old from Oregon, spent time on several online discussion boards with students and other applicants trying to figure out her chances (she has been deferred until April).

“The main thing I kept coming across was the only way to get in was to apply early decision, and I kept hearing that if I had parents or family members who went there it would be a lot easier,” Smith said. “It’s really frustrating that you can get a leg up just because your parents went there.”

Tiffani Torres, a first-generation freshman at Georgetown University, also opposes legacy preference in admissions. “It just perpetuates the cycle of inequity and continues to put students of color and low-income students at a disadvantage,” said Torres, who grew up in New York City and is attending Georgetown on a full scholarship.

Torres lives on campus but takes most classes online due to the pandemic, and she’s in a cohort with other full-scholarship students who, she says, are acutely aware of the privileged students around them, along with the sacrifices it takes many others to get to and through college and catch up.

Georgetown said it did not have legacy numbers available for its early admits, but said 9 percent of the class of 2024 has legacy connections. That’s low compared with places like Cornell, where legacies have made up as much as 22 percent of early admits in recent years.

One of the few schools that publicly released its number of early-admission legacy admits was Dartmouth in New Hampshire: 15 percent.

Related: As admission season descends warning signs appear for low-income applicants

While they did not want to talk about legacies,the country’s most exclusive colleges did release plenty of data on the vast increases they’ve had in the number of early admission applicants from last year to this: 38 percent more at Yale, 45 percent at Amherst – and a stunning 57 percent more at Harvard. Many of the top flagship public universities also saw big jumps in early-admission  applicants: 38 percent at the University of Virginia and 28 percent at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example.

The elite schools are also reporting big jumps in the number of low-income applicants from underrepresented groups, which they credit largely to test-optional policies for admission adopted during the pandemic, along with virtual recruiting events. Another reason is the generous financial aid packages these wealthier schools can afford to offer.

Overall though, binding early admission still disproportionately benefits wealthier applicants, who are three times more likely to be white than applicants who vie for whatever seats are left in the regular pool.  Also, early applicants allow colleges to lock in some full-paying students who don’t have to wait and compare financial aid offers.

For the record, there are some elite colleges that don’t consider legacy, including MIT and Cal Tech. The University of California system hasn’t given legacy preferences since the 1990s. I heard a lot of calls to join these institutions and end legacy admissions as a way of making the process more equitable last year during a seminar run by Jerome Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California.  

Progress has been slow. “The pandemic has really hurt finances, so it’s understandable they will lock in more of their class [early] and have them pay in full,” said Lucido, who now believes it will take federal policy to end legacy admissions.

The hypocrisy of colleges’ silence about the policy angers John Branam, who helps students navigate the college admissions process as executive director of Get Schooled, and who sees firsthand how many low-income and minority students find themselves at a disadvantage accessing top schools.

“It’s just a stunning situation, that here we are knee deep in a powerful Black Lives Matter moment and it doesn’t feel like our most prestigious universities across the country are taking a hard look at it,” said Branam, who is also a member of the advisory committee at The Hechinger Report.

“It’s really frustrating that you can get a leg up just because your parents went there. It should all be a level playing field.”

Ayana Smith, high school senior applying to Tulane University

Torres could not agree more. She is one of eight siblings, the first in her family to attend a four-year-college, and acutely aware of how different the backgrounds of her and those in her cohort are from many other students at Georgetown – especially from those whose family ties to the institution go back for decades.

“There are students who can’t afford to go to a place like Georgetown who are taking out loans and have multiple jobs just to receive a prestigious education, when their peers already have the added advantage of parents that attended college and understand the [admission] process,” Torres said.

So, while there are many good reasons to talk about eliminating legacy admissions, Pérez of NACAC admits that colleges really have little incentive to do so. After all, who wants to face the wrath of generous alumni and watch their dollars go elsewhere?

“It’s extremely complicated,’’ Pérez said. “There is a secret handshake between institutions and alums: you be faithful to us and we will be faithful to you.”

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