Last week, this editorial board discussed one potential way Georgetown University could re-center its admissions process on student achievement.
In this vein, we believe that to truly promote inclusion and opportunity, the university must end its preference of legacy students in admissions. This practice prioritizes students with potentially less merit than average admitted students merely because of their familial and financial ties to the school.
Legacy preference refers to the advantage given to students in the college admissions process because of their family ties to alumni. The Hoya reported in 2017 that, for the class of 2021, 30 percent of legacy applicants were accepted, compared to 15.4 percent of the applicant pool as a whole (“Legacy Students Twice as Likely to Be Admitted,” The Hoya, May 19, 2017, A1). Legacy students comprise around 10 percent of the class of 2021.
Policies of legacy admissions were first instituted in the 1920s by several Ivy League institutions, including Harvard University, to limit acceptance of immigrant students, many of them Jewish or Catholic. By advantaging legacy students — usually native-born Protestants — these deplorable policies curbed the admittance of students whose parents would not have attended these universities, in particular, immigrants.
Today, legacy students comprise 29 percent of Harvard’s class of 2021, according to the Harvard Crimson.
At Georgetown, the policy of legacy preference did not develop until the 1970s, as a way to continue family tradition. Since then, it has evolved into a way of encouraging alumni giving. Nevertheless, the necessity of alumni donations pales in comparison to the detrimental effects of legacy preference.
The university’s priority in admissions should be cultivating a hardworking, diverse class, not developing a source of potential revenue for the university., in particular because the effect of legacy preference on alumni donation has been empirically disproven.
In “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” Chad Coffman examined seven institutions that ceased legacy preference between 1998 and 2008. Quoted in The Washington Post, Coffman found “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result.”
In 2015, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon described to The Hoya how influential students’ legacy status can be in admissions (“Legacy Status Tips Admission Scales,” The Hoya, March 20, 2015, A1).
He noted that legacy students who were not accepted on first evaluation would be given a “second look,” so that students’ legacy status could potentially swing the decision.
The nature of this process indicates that legacy status has the potential to override students’ merits — or lack thereof. In fact, it has the potential to give students who may not have otherwise been accepted a second chance, weighing them on their familial connections rather than their own achievements.
Perhaps most egregious is how significantly the legacy system favors wealthy students by weighing parent involvement — usually financial — in the Georgetown community after their own graduation.
“If you were very close to the edge and the family’s given to the annual fund every year or something, that might be enough of a tip to get you in. If you’re a little farther from the edge, but the family has built Regents Hall, that might tip a little farther,” Deacon told The Hoya in 2015.
That a family’s donation history could directly influence its student’s chance of admission is antithetical to the fair, meritocratic system that our admissions process should strive to be.
Moreover, legacy preference in admissions prioritizes predominantly white, financially well-off students. Deacon told The Hoya last year that legacy students “are more likely to be white,” Meanwhile, this system disadvantages those whose parents are not already entrenched in elite institutions — namely, low-income and first-generation college students. Georgetown cannot claim to support students of all backgrounds when we give already-privileged students an extra leg up.
When calling to end legacy preference, the editorial board does not include the admissions advantage provided to the descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown in 1838. This program, though often lumped in with legacy preference, is fundamentally different in nature.
Legacy preference in admissions stems from immense economic, and often racial, privilege; this advantage given to the descendants, conversely, represents Georgetown’s attempt to compensate for a historical lack of privilege, and as such should remain.
To truly foster a strong, diverse class, Georgetown must end its policy of legacy preference in admissions. If not, we merely advantage students who need it least.