Gaming the System: College Legacy Admissions

Everybody knows how ridiculously hard it is to claw your way into an elite school like Harvard, Princeton or Notre Dame. Every year though plenty of students who possess lower grades and less impressive resumes find a way to game the system.

What’s their secret? They’ve got the right parents.

Schools hate to talk about the students who saunter through the educational pearly gates because mom, dad or maybe grandpa graduated from Harvard. When ABC News requested legacy admission statistics earlier this year from several selective schools across the country, Columbia, Georgetown and Stanford were among the schools refusing to share the numbers.

The admission rates at selective schools, which were perhaps less embarrassed by their legacy biases when ABC News called, illustrate just how slanted the process.

The latest Princeton legacy admission rate was 40% compared to 13.1% of all applicants. The Middlebury College legacy rate was 48% versus 18% for all applicants.

In a recent USA Today op ed piece, Michael Dannenburg, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, blasted the legacy practice that’s primarily found at exclusive schools. One of the universities that he singled out was Notre Dame. At this Catholic school, one in four students receive legacy preference, which represents more students than all the African Americans and Latino students combined.

Schools like Harvard whine that they need legacy students because it encourages those families to donate the big bucks. With a $35 billion endowment that exceeds the gross national product of many countries, it takes a lot of audacity for Harvard to make that argument. The Harvard legacy admission rate, by the way, is about 40%.

Do the legacies deserve this special treatment? I think you already know the answer to that.

The federal Department of Education concluded that legacies on average are “significantly less qualified” than their peers. A 2008 study of Duke admission practices concluded that the school’s legacy students were less accomplished as high school students and lagged in their grades during their first college year. These Duke legacy students were less likely to major in engineering or express an interest in becoming a doctor.

I agree with Dannenberg who made this argument:

The legacy preference doesn’t reward achievement, doesn’t promote diversity and isn’t fair. It should be banned. The last thing colleges and universities should be doing is extending an extra helping hand to those already advantaged by birth.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also writes a college blog for

Further Reading:

How to Get Into the Ivy League: Be a Legacy

The Secrets of Getting into Harvard

What’s the Matter With Harvard

Lessons From a Higher Ed Icon

Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. This is a very interesting topic, and I think it connects well with the current world situation, Occupy Wall Street movements, and all that.

    I was a Duke student who got lucky and got in probably as a “minority” admittance, because I was a white kid from a small town in Kentucky. I definitely met legacy kids who were not nearly as accomplished, and their admission rate was well known to be closer to 40% even when I was there.

    The thing that’s shameful about the practice is that it’s never talked about. Legacy admissions are the way that meritocracy is undermined in this country in favor of the rich and privileged. If you have money and connections, you can effectively perpetuate an American aristocracy by ensuring that your kids get a special leg up at every step in their lives. How is it that this practice isn’t nearly as controversial as affirmative action?

    Legacy admissions are one of the many ways in which the idea of America as an equal opportunity nation has eroded over the years. As the Occupy protests are starting to show, Americans now know the game is rigged. It’s just a question of what they’re going to do about it.

  2. As a son of a Notre Dame alumni whose grades fit the middle 50% range of the average graduate accepted for admission into a graduate program, I sort of take issue with the charges of “unfairness” about legacies. It’s not a total sacrifice of academic standards incidental to their admissions.

    With less than a 2.9 GPA, few have a shot at Notre Dame, and those with less than 3.2 GPA are few and far between, even among legacy admissions.

  3. I feel compelled to comment on this. At our high school, the Valedictorian with a 4.75 GPA, numerous AP courses, college courses, twelve years of major award winning violin study, state debate championships, and other honors and awards too numerous to mention, along with near perfect SAT scores and popularity contests (student body officer, etc.)– in other words, staggeringly gifted, was passed over in favor of two Stanford legacies. One was accepted, one deferred. Neither ranked in the top ten, and one actually failed a math class. So…the old story persists: it’s who you know.

  4. My son goes to a private school in California. Stanford just took a bunch of wealthy legacies early action, and denied the four top kids in the entire class who had applied there. My friend’s son had a 4.5 gpa, 2360, 5s on 8 APs, unusual and passionate ECs and great recs. Number one in the class. Turned down flat. None of the kids who got in had any achievements that were in the same ballpark. Hate to be cynical, but it all comes down to the bottom line, kids.

  5. Thanks for the shout out, Lynn. I’m glad you agree.

    One clarification, though. One in four Notre Dame students indeed benefits from a legacy preference — more than the school’s African-American and Latino student populations combined, not more than Notre Dame’s total minority and working class student population.

    Independent of the legacy preference, much of our higher education admissions system is unjust. Linked below is a similiar debate I did with a college admissions “consultant” regarding binding early decision, which also has a disparate impact against working class students and minorities. At elite schools, the value of binding early decision is even greater than the legacy preference and it affects many more students. Take a look.

    Thanks for paying attention to this issue. To my mind, it’s always been an issue of right and wrong.