A big-name college drops legacy admissions. Will others follow?

Why We Wrote This

How should U.S. colleges convey fairness and gain the public’s trust? As they look for ways to have more inclusive campuses, some schools are considering whether to keep legacy admissions.

Patrick Semansky/AP
People walk across a quad at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore Feb. 26, 2019. The school recently announced that since 2014 it has been admitting students without giving weight to family alumni ties.

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Johns Hopkins University started the year with a big announcement: Since 2014 it has no longer been using family alumni ties as a factor in admission. 

The Baltimore school joins a cluster of notable exceptions to the use of legacy admissions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California system. 

The announcement revitalizes the debate over legacy policies and comes amid a growing call for elite institutions to regain the trust of a skeptical public by prioritizing equity and transparency. With lower-income and less-educated families representing the fastest-growing supply of students, many campuses are starting to rethink long-standing practices. And as the public gains more insight into how admissions have typically worked at elite institutions – through the Harvard admissions trial last year, for instance – selective colleges are facing more scrutiny about legacy and other admissions categories that have tended to favor the wealthy.     

Johns Hopkins reports that legacy students have fallen to 3.5% in the 2019 freshman class, from 12.5% in 2009, just before a phaseout of legacy admissions began. The number of Pell Grant-eligible students grew from 9% to 19.1% in the same period.

“It makes me proud of my alma mater ... ,” says Hopkins alumna Priya Sarin Gupta, chair of the Massachusetts alumni group. “It makes the process a little bit more fair.” 

For nearly a year, the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal has sparked a public backlash against perks for the wealthy and well connected. One main target: legacy preferences. But until January, Johns Hopkins University had been staying mum about a major shift in its policy: Since 2014, it has admitted applicants without regard to any family alumni ties.

President Ronald Daniels set the higher education world abuzz when he went public with the change. Legacy students have fallen to 3.5% in the 2019 freshman class, from 12.5% in 2009, just before a phaseout of legacy admissions began. The number of Pell Grant-eligible students grew in the same period from 9% to 19.1%.

“It makes me proud of my alma matter. ... It makes the process a little bit more fair,” says Priya Sarin Gupta, a 2002 graduate and chair of the Massachusetts alumni group. “Hopkins has always prided itself on picking students in the admissions process through merit ... and this shows that by example.”

Johns Hopkins’ announcement revitalizes the debate over legacy policies. It comes amid a growing call for elite institutions to regain the trust of a skeptical public by prioritizing equity and transparency. With lower-income and less-educated families representing the fastest-growing supply of students, many campuses are starting to rethink long-standing practices. And as the public gains more insight into how admissions have typically worked at elite institutions – through the Harvard admissions trial, for instance – selective colleges are facing more scrutiny about legacy and other special admissions categories that have tended to favor the wealthy.  

“The real questions are a) Is it fair? and b) Can we afford it as a nation when it means we are doing less than we could be to make college realistic, accessible, and affordable?” says Jerome Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California (USC).

A 2019 national survey found that about three-quarters of the most selective institutions consider legacy. A cluster of notable exceptions includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California system.

Each college understandably takes pride in its individuality and wants to encourage alumni children to attend, Professor Lucido acknowledges. At the same time, he says, “admission deans across the country have been saying quietly, ‘We have to do things differently,’ but they often feel like they can’t, because the structure is all in place to admit alumni [relatives], to give donor preferences. ...”

Backed by research – and money

The Harvard admissions trial also stirred up concerns about legacy preferences, and student groups from the Ivy League and other elite universities have urged their campuses to ditch them. They point to a 2010 study by then-Harvard doctoral student Michael Hurwitz, which analyzed 30 institutions and concluded that students with a parent who attended the school were about three times more likely to be admitted. 

Dropping legacy admissions isn’t the only explanation for Johns Hopkins becoming more socioeconomically diverse. A record-breaking $1.8 billion gift in 2018 has helped the school offer debt-free financial aid packages, for instance. But the admissions change “has accelerated our work of recruiting and matriculating students from all walks of life who demonstrate the academic rigor and exceptional talent we expect … ,” spokeswoman Karen Lancaster wrote in an email to the Monitor.

Among Hopkins alumni, “I’m sure there are those that say, ‘Wait a minute, my kid’s a [high school] junior; now I lose this benefit?’” says Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. But she adds that “even those who may benefit from unearned privilege can often still understand why that privilege needs to go away.”

Any potential domino effect from Hopkins’ move may hinge on whether more research challenges the long-held notion that legacy preferences boost colleges’ bottom line. One analysis of 1998 to 2008 data found no statistical evidence of legacy preferences affecting total alumni giving. The study appeared in the book “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” published by The Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes progressive policies.

Dr. Gupta, the Hopkins alumna, says universities shouldn’t worry about leaving legacy preferences behind, because “people donate for more noble reasons, such as wanting to give back … and give other students the same opportunities that we had.”

Diversity and legacy? 

But legacy benefits aren’t just about money, and at least one selective college makes the case that depending on how such policies are crafted, they can actually fit harmoniously with the goal of broadening access to higher education.

“We’ve been able to diversify socioeconomically while maintaining a legacy policy,” says Swarthmore College Dean of Admissions Jim Bock. The liberal arts campus in Pennsylvania has about 20% Pell-eligible students, and about 20% who are the first generation in their family to attend college. Both categories have grown 5 percentage points in recent years.

“You can be a first-generation legacy at our institution, which I think may surprise people,” Mr. Bock says. The school considers both parents and siblings, so “you can have an older sibling and a younger sibling who are both still within the first generation to attend college. And that person may or may not receive preference, but that’s something we would note in the application.”

It’s important to understand that published rates of legacy enrollment on a campus – about 16% at Swarthmore – usually include everyone who reports any family tie to alumni, but not all of those students are eligible for an admissions boost, Mr. Bock says. Those whose grandparents or cousins attended Swarthmore, for instance, get no extra consideration, but they may apply and enroll.

Still, the word “legacy” tends to carry a connotation of privilege. “It’s a tremendously creative and socially sensitive way of doing things,” USC’s Professor Lucido says of Swarthmore’s approach, but it should maybe be adjusted and renamed, rather than used as a reason to keep a wider legacy policy.

Effective and sustainable, but secret

Johns Hopkins delayed its public announcement partly so it could “watch the impact of this change, and ensure we could make this practice effective and sustainable,” Ms. Lancaster says in her email.

That explanation didn’t satisfy Felicia Petterway, a first-generation low-income (FLI) senior who told the student-run Johns Hopkins News-Letter that she thought more FLI students might have applied in recent years if they had known. “I thought that no matter how good my grades were, or how moving my essays were, my spot could easily be taken by a legacy student, and this prevented me from even applying to several top ranked institutions,” she said in an email to the News-Letter.

But by waiting until they could release information on the impact of the changes, Hopkins leaders made a strong case that they didn’t have to use legacy preferences “to still meet all the goals that they needed to meet,” says Stacey Kostell, who manages enrollment at the University of Vermont and is the incoming CEO of The Coalition for College (a group of more than 150 institutions, including Johns Hopkins, that aims to improve college access for historically underrepresented students). 

More admissions professionals are grappling with how to pull back the curtain on what they do, including by attending conferences like the recent “Reclaiming Public Trust in Admissions and Higher Education” at USC. “Nothing we do in admission and recruitment should be a secret,” Professor Lucido says. “Every admissions space should be available to all without influence. ... If you’re going to have any kind of special admission categories, they should be open and transparent.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a transcription error in a quote from Emmi Harward. She said, “Even those who may benefit from unearned privilege can often still understand why that privilege needs to go away.”

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