Affirmative Action for the Rich: The Case Against Legacy

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A Harvard student protesting the Supreme Courts ruling against affirmative action (Image Credit: Truthout)

Every university wants to select the best possible cohort of students, and every student wants to get into the best university. The solution to these opposing goals is a black-box system of matchmaking, college admissions. With student application numbers on the rise, college admissions have become even more competitive and complex. Colleges look for a large range of factors, the best grades, the best extracurriculars, the best common applications, and perhaps only until recently, the best racial mix. But one factor has sparked considerable controversy, legacy. Legacy admissions refer to the preference given to applicants who have family members, typically parents or grandparents, who attended the same institution. 

One of the primary arguments in favor of legacy admissions is that they help maintain a sense of tradition and institutional loyalty. By admitting students with familial ties to the university, institutions can foster a strong alumni network, which often leads to increased donations and support. This, in turn, benefits the university’s long-term financial stability and allows for the continuation of valuable programs and initiatives. Harvard University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, has a long-standing tradition of legacy admissions. Supporters argue that this practice has contributed to the university’s strong alumni network, which has played a crucial role in supporting various academic and extracurricular activities.

On the other hand, critics argue that legacy admissions perpetuate social and economic inequality. By giving preference to applicants based on their family connections, universities may inadvertently favor students from privileged backgrounds. This can result in a lack of diversity and hinder the goal of creating a level playing field for all applicants. A study conducted by The Century Foundation found that legacy applicants are more likely to come from affluent families, with 77% of legacy students at elite colleges coming from the top income quartile. This statistic highlights the potential bias in the admissions process and the perpetuation of socioeconomic disparities.

Another concern raised by opponents of legacy admissions is the impact on meritocracy and fairness. Legacy applicants may receive preferential treatment, even if their academic qualifications are not as strong as other candidates. This undermines the principle of selecting students based on their individual achievements and potential. In 2019, a lawsuit against Harvard University alleged that legacy admissions disproportionately favored white applicants, further exacerbating racial disparities in college admissions. This case highlights the potential for legacy admissions to compromise the principles of fairness and equal opportunity.

Many look to the recent striking of Affirmative Action by the supreme court as an example of the valuation of meritocracy. Many in favor of Affirmative Action claim that it counteracts the effects of Legacy admissions and believe that if Affirmative Action was repealed, Legacy admissions should be too, for the same reasons. 

Legacy admissions have a significant impact on college admissions, with both advantages and disadvantages. While there is no “one-fit-all” solution to this problem, only tradeoffs, it is crucial for universities to consider the consequences of legacy admissions carefully by striving for a fair and inclusive admissions process that prioritizes merit and diversity, which remains a key tenet of American idealism. By doing so, institutions can ensure that they are selecting the most deserving candidates and providing equal opportunities for all aspiring students.

Written by Monica Alomba

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