The Legacy Dilemma: What to Do About Privileges for the Privileged?

When Kathleen James-Chakraborty received her acceptance letter to Yale on April 17, 1978, there was little doubt in her mind that one decisive factor helped secure her place: Her father and two great-grandfathers had all attended the school before her.

As a teenager, she was ambivalent. The inherited benefit of admissions gave her pause. But studying at Yale would provide a special connection to her father, who died of a heart attack days after learning that Ms. James-Chakraborty had been accepted to his alma mater. It was a well-known place with good opportunities. Eventually she signed up.

Decades later, Ms James-Chakraborty, now professor of art history and architectural historian at University College Dublin, is now adamant that the same past admissions practices that boosted her long-ago application should no longer exist. Her son chose not to apply to Yale.

“I definitely think it should go,” James-Chakraborty said in an interview, adding “there’s no building or one professorship or whatever the parents might be able to donate that justifies it.”

Like Ms. James-Chakraborty, students and alumni from many colleges and universities — not just the ultra-elite — are now grappling with legacy admissions practices, a debate with far broader implications after the Supreme Court last month struck down race-based admissions programs and forced colleges to reconsider their criteria for accepting students.

It has triggered some bracing introspection and complicated feelings.

About the role family connections played in the success of many alumni. On whether the practice of legacy admissions, which has long favored white families, should be eliminated, just as a more diverse generation of graduates prepares to send their own children to college. About how to reconcile the belief that privilege for the privileged is wrong with the impulse of parents to do what they can for their own children.

With the end of race-based affirmative action, the practice of giving admissions preference to relatives of alumni is especially under fire at the most elite institutions, given the outsized presence of their alumni in the nation’s highest echelons of power. A new analysis of data from elite schools published last week highlighted how legacy admissions have effectively served as affirmative action for the privileged. Children of alumni, who are more likely to come from wealthy families, were nearly four times as likely to be admitted as other applicants with the same test scores.

President Biden last month directed the Education Department to examine how to improve diversity in admissions, including “what practices are holding it back, practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.” Harvard’s legacy admissions policy, which gives preference to the children of both alumni and donors, is now facing a civil rights investigation following a complaint by liberal groups.

At least one college, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, publicly decided to end the practice this month, following the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action. In an interview, Michael S. Roth, the school’s president, called the removal “a symbol of our old-fashioned exclusivity that is no longer appropriate.”

“Even though there are a few more black and Hispanic students who would be eligible for it now because of the passage of time, it still overwhelmingly favors white people and people of privilege,” he said.

Colleges have defended the practice – which began in the 1920s as a way for wealthy Protestants to protect collegiate places from Catholic and Jewish applicants—as something that helps maintain financial support for their institutions and fosters community ties.

Some alumni agree, arguing that family tradition has encouraged them to qualify for admission and that a new generation can do the same.

“In the real world, folks, this is how things go,” said Rob Longsworth, an investment manager who was the seventh in his family to attend Amherst College. “But this is ultimately not a zero-sum game. If other people want these things, get them. Do the work to establish such a tradition in your family if that is what they want to do.”

Amherst ended preferences for children of alumni less than two years ago, saying it wanted to be a leader in supporting access and equity.

Opponents of legacy admissions are careful to distinguish between practices at predominantly white elite universities and historically black ones, which arose out of racism and segregation to promote tradition and community for black families. Legislation introduced on Capitol Hill this month aimed at banning older admissions — which currently lacks enough support to pass — would exclude those colleges from such a ban.

Some parents and academics who are black and Hispanic argued that since elite schools have only begun to admit more students of color in recent decades, it would be discriminatory to deprive their children of the advantage now that they can finally benefit.

“It pulls up the ladder behind them to not allow their children to be legacy admits,” said Noliwe Rooks, a historically black Spelman College graduate and now professor and chair of Africana Studies at Brown University. “It’s a few pieces, but important symbolically.”

She added that it was important to “push back against the idea that the only black people who should be on highly selective campuses are those who are first generation or poor.”

Others have more conflicting views on who should benefit. It is impossible to discuss legacy admissions without hearing alumni try to sort their ideals from their self-interest. Some wonder if a second-generation succession candidate in the column of unearned privilege should correspond to someone who had an ancestor present more than a century ago. Or whether tricking admissions into inheritance will really make a dent in an elite education system where the bias against the wealthy runs so deep.

Many colleges in recent years have worked to recruit students whose families have never had a college graduate—essentially the opposite of older admissions. Even among these first-generation students, there are a range of feelings about heritage.

Viet Nguyen, 28, who was the first in his family to attend college, remembers feeling his heart sink when he saw the question on his college application: “Was one of your parents at this university?”

The founder of an organization dedicated to ending legacy recordings, Mr. Nguyen graduated from Brown in 2017 and says he does not want any children he may have to receive legacy preference.

Questions like the one asked of his applications, Mr. Nguyen, “makes a lot of first-generation students think they don’t have a chance.”

Many alumni instinctively see the flaws in past admissions elsewhere, but the good parts are close to home.

Kially Ruiz graduated from Dartmouth in 1998 and was a first-generation college student from the Dominican Republic. He is now president of the Dartmouth Latino Alumni Association.

Mr. Ruiz said legacy admissions should not “turn into some kind of nepotism or some kind of unfair advantage” against non-legacy applicants.

Still, he said, it’s important to consider what a “very strong alumni community” means to a smaller college like Dartmouth.

“There is room for legacy admissions, in the sense that if the candidate is qualified and has merit,” he said. “Having that strong connection to the college is important to us.”

Emily Van Dyke graduated from Harvard in 2003, later returned for a master’s degree and recently stepped down as president of the university’s Native American alumni group. She opposes older admissions, saying it “seems to create a class system within the admissions process.”

Many legacies she knew never lost the feeling that they came in, at least in part, because of an unfair advantage.

“I thought it carried a weight for them,” she said. “It kind of tainted Harvard for them.”

Some alumni recognize that their parents’ desire for them to be a legacy may have overtaken their own passions and ambitions in choosing a school.

Carol Harrington’s father had always dreamed that his two children would follow him to Brown. Mrs. Harrington dutifully did so, but found that it did not offer the kind of psychology programs available at other schools that had accepted her. “It wasn’t a terrible experience — I just wasn’t thrilled with what I was learning,” Ms. Harrington, now 81.

She added: “That’s what heritage does – it limits choice.”

In the current climate, with race-based affirmative action struck down by the Supreme Court, some current students and recent graduates are also feeling the sting.

Powell Sheagren, 23, who graduated last year from Swarthmore College, loved walking the same halls as her mother and grandmother and swapping stories about what had changed.

As he became more aware of the debate surrounding inheritance admissions, Mr. Sheagren said he cringed when he felt the need to explain that he was a third-generation Swarthmore student for sentimental reasons and that he was not there because of donations. It was the fallout from affirmative action, he said, that cemented his desire for “the old door to close behind me.”

“You can split that hair — I can still appreciate what I got from the institution my family has been in and be against the system that tends to favor rich, white people,” he said. Without legacy concessions, he added, “I could share these stories without this looming specter of, ‘Well, you haven’t earned your place here.'”

Kitty Bennett the contribution of research.

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