Less than a week after the Trump administration announced that it plans to investigate claims of affirmative action discriminating against Asian-American applicants, a former Princeton University admissions officer called attention to another form of "affirmative action" — legacy admissions.
Legacy admissions refer to the preference that universities give to students who are related to alumni of the institution. In a letter to the editor published by The New York Times, the Princeton officer, who signed his letter as T.H. Rawls, called legacy admissions “affirmative action for whites.”
At Penn, legacies make up 16 percent of the undergraduate student body — a greater proportion than first-generation students at 12 percent and black students at 7.3 percent. It also exceeds the 15 percent of students who receive Pell Grants, a federal grant for college students.
Penn's Admissions Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Penn’s definition of a legacy applicant is broader than that of most other universities. At Penn, applicants whose parents or grandparents graduated from any affiliated school and even graduate programs are considered legacy applicants. At most other universities, undergraduate admissions offices limit their definitions of legacy applicants to those whose parents attended the university’s undergraduate program, said 1986 Wharton graduate and Co-Founder and Director of One-Stop College Counseling Laurie Kopp Weingarten.
While the legacy admission remains prevalent at Penn, college admissions experts disagree on the merits of this process.
Brian Taylor, the managing director of the college counseling service Ivy Coach, opposes the practice. On Aug. 18, Ivy Coach posted an article on their website calling for an end to legacy admissions, claiming that the policy unfairly benefits wealthy, white applicants.
Taylor rejected the focus of the Justice Department's affirmative action investigation and said legacy admissions, rather than affirmative action, plays the bigger role in Asian-American discrimination in college admissions.
In contrast, Weingarten, whose daughter is a current student at Penn, said legacy status doesn't provide as much of an advantage as people think.
Research into admissions seems to contradict this. A 2013 study from Harvard University found that legacy students have an approximately 23 percent advantage when it comes to getting admitted to highly selective colleges. If the student is related to a parent who attended the university as an undergraduate — also known as a "primary legacy" — they have a 45.1 percent advantage.
Earlier this year in May, The Washington Post also reported that the University of Virginia annually compiles a "watch list" of the children of wealthy donors applying for admission.
Weingarten said as long as legacy applicants are qualified, there is a benefit to accepting legacies.
“Considering legacy status helps build a sense of community,” Weingarten said. “Alumni are so excited to see their children or grandchildren attend. Sometimes they are more willing to donate time, to donate resources to the University and their attachment just grows exponentially.”
Inside Higher Ed reported last week that while legacy applicants are admitted at higher rates than those in the general applicant pool, the majority of legacy applicants ended up meeting or exceeding the academic profile of their intended schools.
“I don’t believe that the legacies who have been admitted didn’t deserve to get there,” Weingarten said. “I have seen legacies apply who did not deserve to get in, and they were not accepted to Penn.”
Admissions experts also disagree on why universities like Penn continue to accept a large percentage of legacy applicants. Weingarten said the University hopes to increase campus involvement from both incoming students and alumni, but Taylor said the University is primarily motivated by donations.
“It’s the same reason why a real estate broker is more incentivized to sell you a high-priced apartment,” Taylor said. “They get more on the deal. Legacy admissions gets them more money.”
Taylor added that accepting the children of wealthy donors is potentially a violation of United States tax law.
“When you donate clothing to Goodwill, you don’t receive an ownership stake in a professional sports team,” Taylor said. “When people donate to universities like Penn, they’re not supposed to get anything in return. And yet, their children are getting preferential treatment in admissions."
"Their files are literally being flagged,” he added.