The Harvard Crimson

Could Losing Legacy Admissions Sustain Racial Diversity?

With the fall of affirmative action, some have suggested that elite universities like Harvard could maintain racial diversity by eliminating legacy admissions preferences. But questions linger over whether dismantling the practice would lead to a meaningful expansion in diversity — and whether alumni donation dollars would wither.
By Toby R. Ma

Could Losing Legacy Admissions Sustain Racial Diversity?

With the fall of affirmative action, some have suggested that elite universities like Harvard could maintain racial diversity by eliminating legacy admissions preferences. But questions linger over whether dismantling the practice would lead to a meaningful expansion in diversity — and whether alumni donation dollars would wither.
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Emma H. Haidar

A “slight tip.”

In a March interview, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 used these two words to describe the admissions preference provided to children of alumni.

But some say the practice confers more than just a narrow advantage to legacy applicants — and striking it down would result in dramatic changes to the diversity of Harvard’s student body, which is under threat after the fall of affirmative action.

In its high-profile lawsuit against the University, anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard’s admissions policies violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funds from discrimination “on the basis of race, color, and national origin.”

Just days after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of SFFA to effectively end race-based affirmative action in higher education, a federal complaint alleged that Harvard’s use of legacy and donor preferences was also in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

Legacy admissions have drawn the ire of higher education experts, the Supreme Court during oral arguments, and Democrats and Republicans in Washington this summer. In July, the Department of Education formally opened an inquiry into Harvard’s use of legacy preferences.

Still, Fitzsimmons defended the practice, noting in the March interview that it has been in place for a “very, very long time.”

“That’s what our office does,” he said.

Proponents of legacy and donor admissions point to higher yield rates, intergenerational culture and traditions, and the importance of donations for maintaining generous financial aid. But opponents argue that the preferences hinder meritocracy and disproportionately benefit wealthy and white applicants.

For Harvard, questions linger about how the College’s student body would change without legacy and donor preferences — and if the University’s fundraising would take a hit.

Harvard's Office of Admissions and Financial Aid has faced new questions about its legacy admissions policies following the fall of affirmative action in June.
Harvard's Office of Admissions and Financial Aid has faced new questions about its legacy admissions policies following the fall of affirmative action in June. By Marina Qu

In the month following the Supreme Court’s decision, other institutions, including Wesleyan University and Occidental College, have eliminated legacy preferences. Other peer institutions, including MIT — Harvard’s rival down the river — have eschewed the preference since at least 2006.

Harvard has yet to follow suit, and it remains unclear whether the University is actively considering a move away from the practice.

In an email to The Crimson, Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment on whether Harvard is reconsidering legacy and donor preferences, but he referred back to a statement the University released after the Supreme Court decision.

“Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision, we are in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.”

‘Who Might Replace Them’

Peter S. Arcidiacono and David E. Card — expert witnesses for SFFA and Harvard at the admissions trial, respectively — presented dueling analyses of Harvard’s student body composition in the absence of legacy admissions and affirmative action.

In a 2019 paper, Arcidiacono projected that removing legacy preferences while keeping affirmative action and holding fixed the number of applicants that Harvard admitted over a six-year period would result in a 4 percent decrease in the number of white admits.

The number of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American admits would increase by 4 percent, 5 percent, and 4 percent, respectively, according to Arcidiacono’s analysis.

“When legacy or athlete preferences are eliminated, we estimate that the racial composition of Harvard’s admitted class changes by a non-trivial amount,” the report states.

But removing legacy admissions would likely not fully offset the decrease in racial diversity caused by striking down affirmative action, Arcidiacono said in a September interview with The Crimson.

“The thing is, when you get rid of legacy preferences, you want to be thinking about, ‘Well, who’s going to come in to replace them?’ and that’s going to look more like the admissions pool as a whole,” Arcidiacono said. “So it’s still going to be more likely than not that it would be a white applicant who might replace them.”

Arcidiacono also found that the likelihood of admission for legacy applicants differed based on an applicant’s race.

“If you are Black, you do not get the same legacy bonus that you would if you were white,” Arcidiacono said.

A more drastic change occurred when Arcidiacono modeled the effects of “removing all racial preferences for underrepresented minorities,” “penalties against Asian Americans,” and “legacy and athlete preferences” in a 2018 analysis.

He concluded that the number of Asian American admits would increase by 50 percent over the six-year period.

A 2017 expert report by Card, which was used in the district court trial, modeled changes to Harvard’s class composition after removing preferences for race, legacy status, athlete-recruit status, children of Harvard faculty and staff, and members of the Dean’s and Director’s interest lists — typically reserved for top donors.

According to Card’s simulation, while the percentage of white students and Asian American students would increase, the share of Hispanic students would decrease to 9 percent and the percentage of Black students would fall by more than half.

“Removing consideration of factors that allegedly benefit White applicants does little to generate racial diversity,” the report states.

“My analyses suggest that using race-neutral policies to generate diversity comes at a cost to class quality,” Card concluded in the report.

In a September interview, Card said removing preferences for children of alumni “didn’t do that much in our simulations.”

“The big problem is going to be African Americans. And to some extent, Hispanics,” he added. “They’re going to fall off if they don’t do something to try and adjust for them.”

‘Not the Right Way to Get Loyalty’

Some universities worry that putting legacy preferences on the chopping block may make donations and fundraising dollars an added casualty. Harvard has previously defended legacy admissions practices by noting the importance of alumni in fundraising efforts.

In a 2018 report released by Harvard’s Committee to Study Race-Neutral Alternatives — which formed to investigate means of achieving student body diversity in the absence of race-based affirmative action — the committee considered, among other options, eliminating legacy and donor preferences.

Still, the committee found that none of the alternatives could be implemented without “significant and unacceptable sacrifice to other institutional imperatives.”

“Harvard alumni also offer generous financial support to their alma mater,” the report stated. “That financial support is essential to Harvard’s position as a leading institution of higher learning; indeed, it helps make the financial aid policies possible that help the diversity and excellence of the College’s student body.”

Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth, who recently announced the university’s decision to ditch legacy preferences, said it is unclear how much eliminating legacy and donor preferences will cost elite schools in fundraising.

“I have said on the record that I do find it obscene that the richest schools in America are said to be the ones that are most worried about losing fundraising dollars,” he said.

The Harvard Alumni Association office is located at 124 Mount Auburn St.
The Harvard Alumni Association office is located at 124 Mount Auburn St. By Truong L. Nguyen

Roth added that Wesleyan has a “very loyal alumni group” that will continue to stay involved, even without legacy preferences.

“We spend a lot of time trying to get them to give us money and affection and loyalty. But I don’t think we need to promise them an unearned advantage,” Roth said. “That’s not the right way to get loyalty in my view.”

According to Town & Country, Texas A&M — which dropped legacy preferences in 2004 — saw an initial dip in alumni donations, but donations eventually grew from $61 million to $92 million between 2004 and 2006.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a nonprofit, estimated in a 2022 report that less than a quarter of donations are given directly by alumni.

At a forum hosted by Harvard Graduate School of Education on Sept. 12, Harvard Economics professor Raj Chetty ’00 — who recently co-authored a paper analyzing the effects of wealth and privilege in the college admissions process — fielded questions from an audience member about the correlation between legacy preferences and donations.

Chetty pointed to peer institutions that do not have legacy admissions or have eliminated it in years past that nevertheless “continue to fundraise.”

“The reason for that, from an economic point of view, is that the wealth distribution in the United States is so skewed that the fraction of people who make donations that actually matter at this scale of these institutions is a very small number of people relative to the number of legacy students who are being admitted,” he said.

‘The Infamous 96’

The University of California system, which does not confer preferences for legacy applicants in the admissions process, has been used as a model for what other universities might look like in the absence of both affirmative action and legacy admissions.

Affirmative action in California public universities ended with the passage of ballot Proposition 209 in 1996. Proposition 209 prohibits preferential treatment based on race, sex, or ethnicity in public employment, contracting, and education.

A 2020 report on the impact of Proposition 209 on the UC system found that after the end of race-conscious admissions, there were declines in applicants and enrollment from underrepresented groups at every UC campus. At the same time, there were enrollment increases for white students and a shift in enrollment of minority students from selective campuses to less selective campuses.

After Proposition 209, the numbers of minority students plummeted at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2006, 10 years after the proposition passed, only 96 Black students were admitted to the freshman class at UCLA, termed the “Infamous 96.” Ultimately, after enrollment numbers were finalized, there were 100 Black freshmen out of a total of 4,852 undergraduates.

Last fall, UCLA’s student body was 4.5 percent African American or Black and 22.5 percent Hispanic. At UC Berkeley, the incoming class was 3.6 percent African American or Black, 52.1 percent Asian American, 21.1 percent Latinx, and 30.7 percent white for the incoming fall 2022 class.

When asked if Harvard’s student body might look similar to the UC system if legacy admissions are eliminated, Card said it would be “not even close,” noting that the percentage of Black residents in California is lower than the national average.

The University of Michigan also does not give preferences for children of alumni in the admissions process. For the 2016-17 enrollment year, the student body consisted of 65 percent white students, 15 percent Asian American students, 5 percent Black students, 6 percent Latinx students, 1 percent Native American students, and 10 percent other or unknown.

In an amicus brief filed in the Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina case, the University of Michigan stated, “Despite persistent, vigorous, and varied efforts to increase student-body racial and ethnic diversity by race-neutral means, admission and enrollment of underrepresented minority students have fallen precipitously in many of U-M’s schools and colleges.”

Still, some universities have improved student body racial diversity after eliminating legacy preferences. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University — which practiced race-conscious admissions — removed legacy preferences in its admissions process and saw an increase in diversity.

In 2013, 9 percent of the incoming freshman class at Johns Hopkins were legacies, according to the university. Students who identified as Black, Latinx, or of Indigenous descent comprised 18 percent of the student body.

The percentage of legacies at Johns Hopkins fell to 2 percent in 2022 after the admissions preferences were dropped. Of the students admitted to the school’s class of 2026, 16 percent were African American, 21 percent were Hispanic or Latinx, and 2 percent were Native American.

For Wesleyan, it is too early to tell how the student body composition will change. But by eliminating legacy admissions, Roth said he hoped Wesleyan would send “a signal that we are really serious about recruiting a diverse campus.”

‘By Itself, It’s Not Enough’

Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, a vocal critic of legacy preferences, described the potential elimination of legacy admissions as “necessary but not sufficient.”

Groton School, a private college-preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts, was founded in 1884.
Groton School, a private college-preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts, was founded in 1884. By Cara J. Chang

“​​A cynical university could make a statement about their virtue by eliminating legacy preferences and find other ways to fill those very same slots with wealthy white students from New England prep schools,” Kahlenberg said.

“It’s an important step — it’s a symbolic step. But by itself, it’s not enough,” he said.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Evan J. Mandery ’89 said universities could dismantle legacy admissions but continue to accept students from elite preparatory schools at high rates.

“You can just boost the number of people you admit from Andover and Groton and Exeter, whether or not their parents went to Harvard or not, and you can have a very similar student body,” Mandery said.

Kahlenberg, who was an expert witness for SFFA during the admissions trial, said universities should also institute “need-affirmative policies” that provide an admissions preference to students who come from low-income families.

“Wealth is really important to educational opportunity in America. And wealth also better captures the history of enslavement and segregation, of redlining, and other socioeconomic factors like income,” Kahlenberg said.

Chetty’s research suggested that instituting need-affirmative policies at Harvard and peer institutions in the “Ivy-Plus” category would have the same impact on socioeconomic diversity as eliminating legacy, “equalizing athlete shares by income,” and “contextualizing non-academic credentials” combined.

“Legacy preference is the beginning of the conversation about what needs to happen to make admissions more equitable. But it is an offensive practice so it should end,” Mandery said.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on X @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

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