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The Actual Mistake in the Admissions Process: The Legacy Policy

6 mins read

In March 2019, The Phoenix’s Editorial Board published an editorial arguing that legacy, not bribery, is the college admissions scandal that most hurts marginalized students during the emotionally and mentally taxing college admissions process. Some may argue that ending legacy preference in admissions would tank the amount of donations that pour into Swarthmore. Still, comparable institutions, including Pomona and recently Amherst, have taken action to end legacy preferences at their institutions. Amherst had given admissions preference to legacy students since the 1920s and stated that by ending the elitist practice, it aims to create more opportunities for academically talented young people regardless of income status and generational privilege.

In a “Christian Science Monitor” article from February 2020, Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 said that about 16% of students at Swarthmore are legacy. Though this percentage is nowhere close to the most egregious examples of elitist inbreeding at private U.S. colleges — Harvard’s current senior class is over one third legacy — it still represents a substantial amount of opportunity unfairly afforded to the already-privileged for no reason that logically adheres to the college’s mission statement of “committing to peace, equity, and social responsibility.”

The college cannot claim to commit to equity or social responsibility while bashfully upholding a tradition that only benefits students with generational privilege. The term “legacy,” in fact, is a polite euphemism for the policy’s actual goal — nepotism. After all, “legacy” is not a measure of any merit except for belonging to a family whose members have had immense educational opportunities in the past. “Legacy” students do not necessarily possess any more ability, academic merit, or drive. (To be clear, legacy students have the same right as every other applicant to attend Swarthmore, so long as their place is earned on merit alone.) Students whose families have already passed through the double doors of Parrish Hall are no more worthy of a world-class liberal arts education than those whose families have not had such opportunities, often due to structural barriers like racism and antisemitism.

With that said, it is worth noting that Swarthmore does foster significant educational opportunities for first-gen, low-income, and students of color. Over 60% of students are either international or students of color (though white Americans are still the largest ethnic demographic by far), while Swarthmore students’ loan default rate is just 1.3%, significantly lower than the national average of roughly 10%. 

Still, let’s not mince words. Swarthmore is not doing some sort of favor to low-income, first-gen, and students of color by giving them these educational opportunities. The college was founded by white people and did not admit any Black students (or, presumably, non-Black students of color) until 1941. It continues to thrive as a predominantly-white institution and does not have any ethnic studies departments focused on people of color. If the college is truly dedicated to equity and social responsibility, it will make a more concerted effort to give marginalized students equal access to the opportunities that our generationally wealthy peers have always had. It is true that 45% of legacy students admitted to the class of 2023 were students of color, but considering that 55% were white students in a student population that is just 39% white, it is clear that this policy still predominantly benefits white — and wealthy — students. Through this policy, the college casts doubt on its interest in creating a more equitable future for itself as an institution.

There is no justification for maintaining legacy preference in admissions that is not, so to speak, all about the Benjamins filtering into the college’s hands from alums’ stacked wallets. The college does not even try to pretend otherwise. Even in the article from the “Christian Science Monitor,” Bock diverts attention from the college’s elitist practices to the college’s socioeconomic diversification, as if some inclusive deeds balance out the bane that is the legacy preference in admissions.

One of the most potent messages that students learn during their first couple of weeks at Swarthmore is that there is no such thing as an admissions mistake at Swarthmore College. But there is: students who earned admission to Swarthmore over equally qualified peers based on nepotism. So, what’s that famous Percy Bysshe Shelley aphorism again? The rich get richer, and everyone else has to duke it out for increasingly competitive and expensive seats in the incoming class?

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