What Does “Eliminating Legacy Preferences” in College Admission Really Mean?

“One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

Amherst College recently announced it would end “the longstanding practice of legacy admission preference,” which is the practice of giving the children of alumni a “leg up” in the admission process. As the announcement from President Biddy Martin’s Office stated, “Legacy students—children of alumni who are academically well-qualified—have represented approximately 11 percent of each class. Going forward, legacy status will no longer factor into the College’s holistic admission process, creating greater opportunity for more applicants.” This development is admirable in principle but problematic in practice.

As an Amherst alumnus (Class of 1977) and a former admission dean there from 1990-98, I am pleased that the College has made this decision in order to favor the broadest possible view of applicants. Making Amherst’s resources available to students from a wide variety of backgrounds is critical to “illuminating the world,” as the College’s motto, “Terras Irradient,” would have it. It also carries on the spirit and not the limitations, of its original mission, to “educate indigent young men of piety.”

In considering what is meant by “giving preference” to legacies, however, I think it’s important to understand that there is a constellation of elements contained in that phrase. Most people will assume that the end of legacy preference means admission decisions will be made purely on that most elusive of qualities, “merit.” Being the child of an Amherst alumnus/alumna will not be a tip-in for an applicant, all other things being equal. But reading applications and putting such a policy into practice is much more complex than most people assume and that most newspapers and media understand.

Like the term “need-blind admission,” the end of “legacy preference” is a polite fiction that assumes those reading applications will have no information about an applicant’s status as an alumni child or child of a wealthy/poor family. But you can’t have a “holistic” admission process without context. Anyone reading an application can infer an applicant’s economic status by their address, high school (boarding or public? Selective or community high school?), summer and extracurricular activities (Paid work? Volunteer? Hiking in Nepal or working the local hot dog stand?), and various other elements. The same will be true for legacies, who are often in middle- or upper-economic strati anyway: As long as applications ask for parents’ educational history or similar personal information, for example, legacy status can be inferred. Applicants can also use the various essay topics to work in the information even if it isn’t formally requested. (We’re not even talking about so-called “development” cases, applicants whose family backgrounds contain the promise of a large future contribution to the institution.)

Aside from what may or may not be contained in the application, there are systemic ways of giving preference to legacies. For example, in the 1990s, the Amherst admission office instituted a special service where the dean would meet with parents of prospective applicants during alumni weekends and reunions. She would give them advice and counsel that they might not otherwise have received about the application process. During reading season, the dean re-read all legacy folders after they had been rated by staff members and sometimes decisions were reversed for various reasons, including a “president’s interest” request. Alumni parents whose children had applied were given advance notice of negative decisions in order to forestall angry phone calls. Siblings of current students were given special consideration as well. In general, it would probably be fair to say that alumni children had inescapable preference simply by being who they were. For a “legacy-blind” policy to be truly so, these elements will have to be addressed as well. 

None of this is to say that alumni children were or are given a free pass to the College, which I think is what most people assume when they hear about “legacy admission.” In fact, if anything, we readers often gave them a harder time because of their privilege; they could easily be turned down if they didn’t measure up. The several alumni on the admission staff, including me, were often the toughest on them. Our awareness of legacy status didn’t automatically translate to an “admit” nor was it usually a determining factor for us. And I think I can confidently say that it was often the least interesting thing about them. I believe it’s probably the same today.

While the concept of eliminating legacy status as a factor in admission is admirable, its practice will be much more difficult to effect. I don’t know the current policies of the Amherst Admission Office, but I wonder how far they (or any other college willing to try it) are willing to go to doing so. Will they eliminate all admission office contact with alumni during campus and off-campus events? (What about admission officer meetings with alumni in cities they visit to recruit students in the fall or when they attend accepted student open-houses in the spring?) What will make the process truly “legacy-blind?” Around 1991 or ’92 we eliminated personal interviews as a factor in admission because we felt they favored more privileged applicants (although they weren’t determinative); this new legacy policy continues that effort but, again, how far is the College willing to go?

An unintended consequence of this policy may be the disadvantaging of future alumni who come from non-privileged backgrounds and are perhaps the first in their families to go to college. “Legacy” seems to be being used to mean “scion of rich white parents who already have all the privilege they need.” But what will happen when that term comes to include a significant number of non-white, non-wealthy applicants whose parents attended the College? If the immediate goal is to maintain a healthy number of those students at the College and the larger goal is to help them attain the kind of status we currently associate with wealthy white people and to ensure that they help create a more just and enlightened society, what will or should become of the policy? 

Amherst is not unique in this arena, of course. Every college that wants to pursue a legacy-blind policy will have to consider all these elements and more. It is simplistic and reductionistic to assume that simply adopting this policy, like the “need-blind” policy, can cure all admission ills or to assume that it’s as easy as just not considering the facts of an applicant’s existence. Nor can we assume that it will be easy. As long as human beings are doing the work, it will be impossible to eliminate inference and conscious or unconscious bias one way or another. In order to really be “-blind” in one way or another, applications would have to become strictly a numbers game, and even that wouldn’t really solve the conundrum. (I would never consider adopting a purely mechanistic or algorithmic methodology for college admission, just for the record.) I don’t question by any means Amherst’s (or any other college’s) good intentions or even ability to achieve its goals, nor do I question the reason for doing so. The issue isn’t really about being blind to the facts of an applicant’s life but having admission officers learn to be conscious and aware of their livers in ways that will assure as equitable a result as possible in a process that is inherently inequitable.