When applying to USC, there are a number of things that could aid a student’s chances for admission: active community involvement, a high GPA, strong test scores and, some argue, having a parent who attended USC.
But measuring the extent to which being a legacy student matters in admission is, like quantifying any single admissions factor, a hazy task. The USC Admissions Blog notes that “… legacy status is, on its own, not going to be the deciding factor in the evaluation of a student’s application. There are many factors that we are considering when making our decisions, and legacy status is just one part of that.”
In this vein, elite colleges around the country, including Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Brown and Columbia, have launched plans to collect signatures on petitions that question the fairness of legacy programs this spring semester.
USC students should be equally critical.
Still, no matter the degree to which specific legacy programs aid a student’s admission to a particular school, their mere existence as a system is large enough to warrant consequent debate and discussion: U.S. News & World Report found that around three-quarters of the nation’s top 100 universities give some boost in admissions likelihood to the children or relatives of alumni.
The presence and prevalence of legacy programs represents, for some, a sense of elitism in a system that should be striving for equal access, and, for others, a necessary action to foster and retain support for the school. But the problem, in a sense, lies not so much with the mere existence of legacy programs, as it does with the by-products of them: The students admitted through programs like these tend to be overwhelmingly white and wealthy.
Legacy programs, then, become a way to further privilege students who are often already quite privileged.
Many of the programs around the country that support the action of favoring legacy students do so operating under the notion that admitting students with a pre-built connection to the university will increase their future commitment as alumni — these students, and their families, will be even more likely to contribute to the school financially and otherwise.
It’s not an inherently criminal notion to accept those who might be prone to especially supporting the school — every school should strive to include students who are going to support it — but the assumption that support is somehow limited to money is discriminatory, and excludes those who do not have the means to donate but might want to support their school in other ways.
Further, the assumption that a longstanding connection to a university inherently creates a proclivity to donate large amounts of money is also flawed. As The Atlantic reports, little evidence suggests that the existence of legacy-preference policies impactfully enhances total alumni giving. In the study that the publication referenced, it is also found that “seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences between 1998 and 2007 did not suffer any serious reductions in alumni giving.”
In trying to search for students with a proclivity to “support” a school, many universities have ended up additionally favoring students who are already likely to be favored, as a result of their socioeconomic status and prior access to education. These are students who can excel on the kinds of benchmarks, like standardized testing and official interviews, that comprise one’s college admissions process and therefore often do not even need the additional leg up they receive if they’re a legacy student.
That said, this unfair preference extends far beyond favoring students with relatives who attended a certain school — which is why USC should strive to admit students from a wider array of economic backgrounds, rather than a larger number of wealthy students, including legacies. As of Fall 2016, 21 percent of undergraduates received pell grants. But given that roughly 16 percent of USC’s Fall 2017 freshmen were legacies, it’s evident that the University is walking the line between representation and tradition.
A 2010 book by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, called Rewarding Strivers, reported that: “Seventy percent of students at the nearly 200 “most competitive” colleges (including public universities) came from the top quarter of households by income.” In their book, they also determine that “these richest households are now overrepresented by 43 percent at top colleges.”
Legacy programs are unfair for whom they aid — but only when they’re aiding those who do not need financial help and who come from economic brackets that, as Carnevale and Strohl find, are already overrepresented at elite institutions.
Schools and students who want to better equalize “the great equalizer” should look not only to disrupting legacy programs, but also to programs that will change the economic makeup of their schools in other, equally impactful, ways.