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The Legacy Dilemma: What to Do About Privileges for the Privileged?

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When Kathleen James-Chakraborty received her acceptance letter to Yale on April 17, 1978, there was little doubt in her mind that a crucial factor helped secure her spot: Her father and two great-grandfathers had all attended the school before her.

As a teenager, she was ambivalent. The legacy advantage in admissions gave her pause. But studying at Yale would offer a special connection to her father, who died of a heart attack days after learning Ms. James-Chakraborty had been accepted to his alma mater. It was a familiar place, with excellent opportunities. Ultimately, she enrolled.

Decades later, Ms. James-Chakraborty, now a professor of art history and an architectural historian at University College Dublin, is now firm that the same legacy admissions practice that boosted her application long ago should no longer exist. Her son chose not to apply to Yale.

“I definitely think it should go,” Ms. James-Chakraborty said in an interview, adding “there’s no one building or one professorship, or whatever the parents may be in a position to donate, that justifies that.”

Like Ms. James-Chakraborty, students and alumni of many colleges and universities — not just ultra-elite ones — are now wrestling with the practice of legacy admissions, a debate with far broader implications after the Supreme Court last month gutted race-based admissions programs and forced colleges to reconsider their criteria for accepting students.

It has sparked some bracing introspection and complicated feelings.

About the role familial connections played in the success of many alumni. About whether the practice of legacy admissions, which has long favored white families, should be eliminated just as a more diverse generation of graduates is getting ready to send its own children to college. About how to reconcile the belief that privileges for the privileged are wrong with the parental impulse to do whatever they can for their own children.

With the end of race-based affirmative action, the practice of giving admissions preference to relatives of alumni is particularly under fire at the most elite institutions, given the outsized presence of their alumni in the nation’s highest echelons of power. A new analysis of data from elite colleges published last week underscored how legacy admissions have effectively served as affirmative action for the privileged. Children of alumni, who are more likely to come from rich families, were nearly four times as likely to be admitted as other applicants with the same test scores.

President Biden last month instructed the Education Department to examine how to improve diversity in admissions, including “what practices hold that back, practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.” Harvard’s legacy admissions policy, which gives preference to the children of both alumni and donors, now faces a civil rights investigation after a complaint from liberal groups.

At least one college, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, decided to publicly end the practice this month, after the Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action. In an interview, Michael S. Roth, the school’s president, called it the removal of “a symbol of our old-fashioned exclusivity that is no longer appropriate.”

“Even though there are some more Black and Hispanic students who’d be eligible for it now because of the passage of time, it still predominantly favors white people and people of privilege,” he said.

Colleges have defended the practice — which began in the 1920s as a way for wealthy Protestants to protect collegiate spots from Catholic and Jewish applicants — as something that helps maintain financial support for their institutions and fosters community bonds.

Some alumni agree, arguing that family tradition has encouraged them to earn the qualifications for admission and that a new generation can do the same.

“In the real world, folks, this is how things go,” said Rob Longsworth, an investment manager who was the seventh in his family to attend Amherst College. “But this is ultimately not a zero sum game. If other people want these things, go get them. Do the work to establish such a tradition in your family, if that’s what they want to do.”

Amherst ended preferences for the children of alumni less than two years ago, saying it wanted to be a leader in supporting access and equity.

Opponents of legacy admissions are careful to draw a distinction between the practice at predominately white elite universities and historically Black ones, which rose out of racism and segregation to foster tradition and community for Black families. Legislation introduced on Capitol Hill this month aimed at outlawing legacy admissions — which currently lacks enough support to pass — would exclude those colleges from such a ban.

Some parents and academics who are Black and Hispanic argued that, since elite schools have only in recent decades begun to admit more students of color, it would be discriminatory to deprive their children of the advantage now that they can finally gain from it.

“It is pulling up the ladder behind them to not allow their kids to be legacy admits,” said Noliwe Rooks, a graduate of Spelman College, which is historically Black, and now a professor and chair of Africana Studies at Brown University. “It’s a few in number, but important symbolically.”

She added that it was important to “push back against the idea that the only Black people who should be on highly selective campuses are those who are first generation or poor.”

Others have more conflicted views of who should benefit. It is impossible to discuss legacy admissions without hearing alumni trying to sort their ideals from their self interest. Some wonder if a second-generation legacy candidate should be equivalent in the unearned-privilege column to someone who had an ancestor attend more than a century ago. Or whether nixing legacy admissions will really make a dent in an elite education system where bias toward the wealthy runs so deep.

Many colleges in recent years have worked to recruit students whose families have never had a college graduate — essentially the opposite of legacy admissions. Even among those first-generation students, there are a range of feelings about legacies.

Viet Nguyen, 28, who was the first in his family to attend college, recalls feeling his heart sink when he saw the question on his college applications, “Did either of your parents attend this university?’’

The founder of an organization devoted to ending legacy admissions, Mr. Nguyen graduated from Brown in 2017 and says he does not want any children he might have to receive legacy preference.

Questions like the one posed on his applications, said Mr. Nguyen, “makes a lot of first-generation students think they don’t have a chance.’”

Many alumni instinctively see the failings of legacy admissions elsewhere, but the good parts close to home.

Kially Ruiz graduated from Dartmouth in 1998 and was a first-generation college student from the Dominican Republic. He is now the president of the Dartmouth Latino Alumni Association.

Mr. Ruiz said that legacy admissions should not “devolve into a kind of nepotism, or some type of unfair advantage” against applicants who are not legacies.

Still, he said, it is important to consider what a “very strong alumni community” means to a smaller college like Dartmouth.

“There’s a place for legacy admissions, in the sense that if the candidate is qualified and has merit,” he said. “Having that strong connection to the college is important for us.”

Emily Van Dyke graduated from Harvard in 2003, later returned for a graduate degree and recently stepped down as president of the university’s Native American alumni group. She opposes legacy admissions, saying it “appears to create a class system within the admissions process.”

Many legacies she knew never lost the sense that they got in, at least in part, because of an unfair advantage.

“I thought that carried a weight for them,” she said. “It made Harvard a little tainted for them.”

Some alumni acknowledge that their parents’ desire for them to become a legacy may have overtaken their own passions and ambitions in choosing a school.

Carol Harrington’s father had always dreamed that his two children would follow him to Brown. Ms. Harrington dutifully did, but found it didn’t offer the kind of psychology programs that were available at other schools that had accepted her. “It wasn’t an awful experience — I was just not excited by what I was learning,” Ms. Harrington, now 81, said.

She added: “That’s what legacy does — it limits choices.”

In the current climate, with race-based affirmative action struck down by the Supreme Court, some current students and recent graduates are feeling the sting, too.

Powell Sheagren, 23, who graduated last year from Swarthmore College, reveled in walking the same halls as his mother and his grandmother and exchanging stories about what had changed.

When he became more aware of the debate surrounding legacy admissions, Mr. Sheagren said, he winced, feeling the need to explain that he was a third-generation Swarthmore student for sentimental reasons, and that he was not there because of donations. It was the fall of affirmative action, he said, that cemented his desire for “the legacy door to close behind me.”

“You can split that hair — I can still value what I gained from the institution my family’s been to, and be against the system that tends to support rich, white people,” he said. Without legacy admissions, he added, “I could share these stories without this looming specter of, ‘Well, you didn’t earn your place here.’”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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