Study Shows Legacy Students Have Advantage In College Admissions

January 10, 2011

brick steps to college campusA new study of 30 highly selective colleges conducted by a Harvard University researcher found that legacy applicants--students who have a family connection at a school--have a significant advantage in admission.

The study, led by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, revealed that applicants to a parent's alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission of nonlegacy applicants, The New York Times reported. By comparison, students whose parents did graduate work there or who had a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle who attended the school were only twice as likely to be admitted.

"It's fundamentally unfair because it's a preference that advantages the already advantaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonprofit research organization. "It has nothing to do with the individual merit of the applicant."

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, legacy applicants, all other things being equal, had a 23.3 percentage point increase in their probability of admission compared to nonlegacy applicants. Primary legacies, applicants with a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, had a staggering 45.1 percentage point advantage. In other words, if a nonlegacy applicant faced a 15 percent chance of admission, a primary legacy applicant with identical credentials would have a 60 percent chance of getting in.

Hurwitz says legacy or nonlegacy status matters a lot to individual applicants; however, because applicant pools are so large, legacy admits do not greatly decrease the chance that other students will get into the college of their choice. Of more than 290,000 applications he examined, only about 6 percent had legacy status.

In addition, Hurwitz discovered that legacy students, on average, had slightly higher SAT scores than nonlegacy students.

Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Stanford University Richard Shaw, on the other hand, emphasizes that legacy status does not guarantee that an applicant will be admitted to an elite school, The Stanford Daily noted.

"The reality of this is that the majority of students that are legacies do not get in," Shaw said. But legacy students are very strong candidates, he said.

"In looking at our quantitative measures, our legacy enrollees or admits tend to be stronger than the median of the admitted class," Shaw said. "It shatters another perception that unqualified or less qualified students are getting into Stanford because they are sons or daughters of parents who have come before them."

Compiled by Alexander Gong


"At Elite Colleges, Legacy Status May Count More Than Was Previously Thought,", January 5, 2011, Elyse Ashburn

"New study finds that legacy status is a strong advantage at elite universities,", January 10, 2011, An Le Nguyen

"Study Finds Family Connections Give Big Advantage in College Admissions,", January 8, 2011, Tamar Lewin

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