USC values legacies but avoids nepotism

Elizabeth Eddy, a senior majoring in business administration, belongs to a family that has attended USC for four generations. Eddy is the 18th member of her family to attend the university. And now that her brother and cousin also currently attend USC, the Eddy family has had 20 members of their family attend the university.

“The Trojan Family is so cool because we are one of the few colleges in the world that has such a tight-knit family feel that even once you leave, you love it so much that you want to give back,” Eddy said. “So it’s like a pay-it-forward type of system and it’s really cool because I have seen that through my family over the past 100 years.”

When filling out the application to USC, applicants are asked to specify whether or not they have had any relatives attend the university — and if so, who they were and the year they graduated. For some, this area of the application serves as a boost of confidence. For others, it’s a cause for unease.


Over the past nine years, the percentage of freshmen legacies, or “SCions,” as the university calls them, has ranged from 18 to 24 percent. And with percentages hovering near 25 percent, one question often asked by both current and prospective students is to what extent an applicant’s status as a legacy will affect his or her chances for admission.

Among some students, there is a belief that applying to USC without a legacy can make the admissions process more difficult.

“I didn’t really know much about USC but at my school it’s seen as a really hard place to get into,” said Stephanie Brill, a sophomore majoring in industrial and systems engineering. “So when I was applying, I thought that because nobody in my family had gone, there was no way I would get in.”

And, to a certain extent, having a legacy certainly is factored into admission decisions, though it serves as only one piece of an applicant’s profile, according to Timothy Brunold, USC’s dean of admissions.

“It’s considered,” Brunold said. “It would be what we might call a ‘plus factor.’”

But Brunold emphasized that admissions decisions are not formulaic. Instead, applications to the university are evaluated holistically.

“It can help a student in the process. It’s likely never going to turn a student who might otherwise be ill-fitting for USC into an admitted student, but it can certainly help us to distinguish when we are looking at a wide range of candidates who might look pretty similar,” Brunold said. “We are going to tend to prefer those students who already have other folks in their family who have experienced the university.”

This is a difficult line to walk, however, because many non-legacy students feel a strong connection to the university’s tradition, despite not having family that has previously attended.

“Even though I just joined the Trojan Family a year ago because I never had any family connection, I got integrated into the family really quickly,” said Connor Pace, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. “I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it and wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.”

When looking at applications, the admissions office values more than just a connection to tradition. In recent years, admission to USC has become increasingly competitive, Brunold said, largely because of changes in academic rigor. Contrary to the belief of many, this has not affected the number of legacies admitted. In fact, as USC’s acceptance rate has decreased in recent years, the acceptance for legacies has increased.

“The SCions that apply to USC are pretty quality students,” Brunold said. “So not only are they members of the [Trojan] Family, but they are students that are going to be good for this university in terms of our academic profile. If you look at the students who apply to USC by GPA, by SAT, by some of these numeric indicators each year, SCions generally have a little bit higher numbers in that regard.”

Brunold said the admissions office is unable to release GPA or SAT scores for legacy students because the office does not publically release such statistics for any subdivision of applicants.

Though statistics for legacy admission are only given for the freshman class, many legacies come to USC as transfer students. The university offers a transfer planning program that’s aimed at offering support from the Admissions Office for prospective legacy students looking to transfer. This program was created about 15 years after concerns arose that legacies were being admitted at a lower rate.

At the time, Brunold said acceptance to the university was becoming increasingly competitive.

The program mostly works with members of the Trojan Family who were not offered admission immediately out of high school by providing advice on how to plan out how they might be better prepared for admission as a transfer student.

Paige Poulsen is one beneficiary of the program. She is a junior majoring in communication and a USC legacy who transferred during her sophomore year.

“It was helpful because they told us the classes we needed to take if we wanted to transfer,” Poulsen said. “It was also helpful once I decided I wanted to apply to transfer. I had a [contact] that I could message about the application and ask questions about classes.”

The program was able to help Poulsen fulfill her dream of attending USC and following in her family’s footsteps.

“I grew up a fan and I feel like it’s just in my blood to love USC,” Poulsen said. “I felt like I have always loved the school but then actually experiencing it as a student made me love it even more.”

Still, Brunold warned that the program doesn’t mean admission is a certainty.

“It’s not a guarantee of admission and, unfortunately, over the years, there have been students who have gone through this process with us who we still have not been able to admit,” Brunold said. “It’s simply our way of reaching out to Family members and saying, ‘We really want to acknowledge how much you want to be at USC and we want to continue to work with you to give you the best advice that we can.’”

Some students reported mixed reactions from their peers after hearing that they are legacies.

Jack Medall, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, explained how he has learned to brush off negative reactions from students when they find out he is a legacy.

“I didn’t take it as anything, though,” Medall said. “People sometimes say, ‘You only got in because you’re a legacy,’ and I say that’s the point of being a legacy — that my family proved that they could be successful coming from this school, so they want me to come here. Some people are just a little bit bitter about it.”

Aaron Rifkind, a sophomore majoring in international relations, has not experienced a negative response to being a legacy.

“I don’t think my parents having gone here influences anyone else’s opinion of why I go here,” Rifkind said.

Some fear USC, as an institution that admits many legacies, might run the risk of creating a closed society. But many also feel that USC is welcoming to anyone of merit.

“I think we are elite. I don’t think we are elitist — I think there is a difference,” said Patrick Auerbach, associate senior vice president for alumni relations. “So we are elite but we are welcoming to anybody who is of great character, of great caliber, who is very aspiring and very ambitious.”

Jerry Papazian, a former trustee, also said he doesn’t perceive USC as exclusive.

“I never view USC as being a country club type thing at all,” Papazian said. “What’s been unique about USC from day one is that it has always been a place where anyone can come in and if they did well in school, they would credit back what they learned to the teachers they had back at the university and become very loyal alumni as a result.”

At the end of the day, though students might be able to specify their family’s connections to USC on their applications, a legacy classification is not a guarantee of admission.

“I think USC does a really great job of sticking to a lot of the great traditions while at the same time adapting to a very changing world,” Auerbach said. “We have to reflect that in everything we do from how we communicate with alumni to how we are recruiting the best students [and] the best faculty. There are going to be trade-offs in some areas. You know not every child of every alumnus is going to get admitted to USC.”

Brunold even believes that some students hold an inflated perception of the effects one’s legacy status might carry in the admissions process.

“What we do with this group and what we do with any group of applicants is that we are simply seeking the best students and the people who might present the best fit for the university,” Brunold said. “[Legacy] is one small element. I can easily say that if students are really worried about this then they are really missing the bigger picture about how the admissions process works.”


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