The legacy advantage is even more sizable than you might imagine. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported back in 2011, based on research from Harvard, “legacy applicants got a 23.3-percentage-point increase in their probability of admission. If the applicants’ connection was a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, a ‘primary legacy,’ the increase was 45.1-percentage points.”
Overall, according to the Chronicle, “if a non-legacy applicant faced a 15 percent chance of admission, an identical applicant who was a primary legacy would have a 60 percent chance of getting in.”
Plenty of experts agree with Reeves that the status quo is unfair. Jeffrey J. Selingo at The Washington Post wrote earlier this year that “the easiest way for elite universities to bridge the growing economic divide on their campuses and have their student bodies look like the rest of America is to eliminate legacy admissions.”
And in Op-Ed for The New York Times titled “End College Legacy Preferences,” Evan J. Mandery writes, “a Princeton team found the advantage to be worth the equivalent of 160 additional points on an applicant’s SAT, nearly as much as being a star athlete or African-American or Hispanic.
“At Harvard, my alma mater, the legacy acceptance rate is 30 percent, which is not an unusual number at elite colleges. That’s roughly five times the overall rate.”
That’s partly the reason why “the majority of top quintile families attend a selective or elite college,” Reeves writes in “Dream Hoarders.” The undergraduate populations at those schools are strikingly homogeneous. “About half of the students at the most selective colleges — around 480 institutions — come from the upper-middle class. The more selective the college, the greater its dominance,” he writes.
Chart reprinted with permission from Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).
Legacy preferences help the top 20 percent of Americans calcify the class system in America, argues Reeves. “Right now, the way we organize our education system, the way we organize our schools, our housing market and our colleges excludes many of those in the bottom 80 percent,” he says.
Reeves suggests parents ask ourselves, “What’s acceptable in a society that prides itself on fairness?” Especially given that, as he tells CNBC, “if you have a society where the upper-middle class perpetuates itself one generation to the next, you cease to be America.”