Legacy, Not Bribery, Hurts Students the Most

Editor’s Note:

This was updated at 10:45AM on March 28, 2019, to update that Dean Jim Bock’s title is Dean of Admission, not Dean of Students as published earlier.

Since March 12, the college admissions bribery scandal has been one of the most regularly discussed subjects in the media. It brought to national attention the ways in which the wealthy and privileged — in this case, 50 entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and celebrities — manipulate their resources to gain drastic advantages in the US education system. Although the scandal was deeply frustrating, it was not surprising. What was perhaps most disturbing about the conversation around the scandal was that although it elicited indignation about illegal “fraud,” it failed to acknowledge the equally-unethical, completely legal way in which college admissions privileges the wealthy upper echelons of American society. In talking about the scandal, a representative from the FBI commented that these parents hadn’t “just” donated money for a new building on campus. This was different; this was fraud. But it’s not different — the legality of the system of legacy admissions does not preclude it from being deeply unethical. Swarthmore admissions actively work to improve access and create fairness and admissions, but the concept of legacy admissions has a history of exclusion that must be grappled with.

College admissions are not, nor have they ever been, fair. And the perpetrator isn’t affirmative action — it’s legacy admissions, which remain completely legal and a mostly-uncontested form of skewing admissions in one’s favor. When Dartmouth College established one of the first “comprehensive college application processes in 1919,” it also first codified the tradition of legacy. This was a direct reaction to increasing numbers of Jewish applicants to the college — a way to perpetuate institutional exclusion against “non-traditional students” and to ensure “all properly qualified sons of Dartmouth alumni and Dartmouth college officers” would be admitted. And so, legacy began.

Today, it remains one of the ubiquitous obstacles to equity in college admissions to elite institutions. As the Crimson reported last June, Harvard applicants who are legacies are five times more likely to be admitted than applicants who are not legacies. The concept of legacy preference is blatant discrimination against low-income, first generation, and immigrant families, and to argue in favor of this unjust practice is to vindicate systemic racism and classism in the U.S. education system. It ensures that power and access to education and resources remain in the hands of those who have had them for decades and mostly sealed-off from historically-underrepresented student populations.

A student’s ability to carry on a family tradition of attending a certain school is not an inscrutable reason to admit them on an unequal basis. Legacy is not a measurement of ability, or drive, or merit of any sort. Rather, its impact reinforces intergenerational privileges of class and race. Elite institutions were not originally designed to allow low-income students, first-generation students, people of color, or people with immigrant families into their student bodies. Legacy is a vestige of this exclusionary past.  

We want to acknowledge that Swarthmore has a lower percentage of legacy students than some its peer institutions. According to Dean of Admissions Jim Bock, 10 percent of admitted students to the class of 2023 and 16 percent of matriculants on average for the past four years have been legacy, which is defined as having a parent, sibling, cousin, or grandparent that is a Swarthmore alum. This is significantly lower than the 29.3 percent of Harvard’s class of 2022 who had family ties to the school. (Admissions statistics are difficult to compare across schools because colleges use different definitions of who counts as a legacy student and who counts as a first generation student, but Harvard’s ‘family tie’ is comparable to Swarthmore’s broad definition.)

And Swarthmore is also working to expand access to the college. 27 percent of the admitted class of 2023 are first-generation students. Additionally, 45 percent of legacy students admitted to Swarthmore’s class of 2023 are domestic students of color. Though these statistics show that Swarthmore’s use of legacy is vastly different than when Dartmouth invented it in 1919, the concept of legacy admissions still inherently favors some applicants arbitrarily.

If a college education is a prerequisite to get most jobs and to be able to have any form of class mobility, then it needs to be accessible to everyone — including education at elite institutions. While we need to condemn this inexcusable college admissions bribery scandal, we also must denounce more ubiquitous, legal, and accepted forms of admissions discrimination. Legacy admissions as a general practice continues to perpetuate racism and classism; the hidden scandal is that this remains acceptable and prone to fervent defense.

1 Comment

  1. Everyone is liberal until it is their money, their blood and their tears. How about work hard, push on and make sure the person behind you has it better. As for legacy admissions, once that umbilical cord is cut so will the alumni donations. If you want to change the world, go make a ton of money and write your own rules.

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