Boston University’s student newspaper last month reported seemingly contradictory statements from the administration about the selective private institution’s use of legacy preferences in admissions.
Colin Riley, a university spokesperson, told The Daily Free Press — and later confirmed in an email to Higher Ed Dive — that it “never had a policy” under which alumni’s children enjoy an admissions advantage.
But at the same time, he also told the student press the university hadn’t considered legacy status “in several years.”
Which is it? Did the university never, or ever, account for legacy affiliation?
Riley did not respond to multiple follow-up emails seeking clarity on the institution's practices. And further muddling the matter, Boston University reported in two currently posted, public-facing datasets that it does consider alumni connections.
Moving forward, the university will indicate in one of those databases, the annually filed Common Data Set, that it does not consider alumni relationships, Riley said. He did not say whether the university would change its reporting to the other data set, which the U.S. Department of Education maintains.
The confusion around legacy preferences is not isolated to Boston University. Other colleges have publicly reported they consider alumni connections in making admissions decisions — only to later say they do not.
Colleges may not define the practice the same either. Are only the children of alumni considered legacy applicants? Or do their other relatives — like a grandchild or a nephew — also gain an advantage?
A lack of consistent data complicates research efforts, particularly at a time when criticism against legacy admissions has intensified.
Some policymakers, pundits and even college leaders have campaigned to end the practice since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions this summer. They argue the ruling will further push historically marginalized students out of higher education and say legacy status gives an unfair edge to wealthy and White applicants.
If legacy admissions is a problem necessitating a ban, then it’s one that no one can fully wrap their heads around at the moment given the murky data.
An incomplete picture
Legacy preferences have long been veiled in secrecy. Even if a college reports that it considers alumni ties, the public generally doesn’t know to what extent. At the same time, it's true that most colleges have no need for legacy policies, as they accept a majority or all of their applicants.
Still, rare glimpses into legacy practices have captured public attention. The Supreme Court case unearthed findings that Harvard University applicants with legacy ties were nearly six times more likely to secure admission than those without a family connection.
Researchers who studied admissions practices of top-ranked colleges like Harvard have suggested that ditching systems favoring the affluent, including legacy, would bolster socioeconomic diversity on campuses.
“It’s absolutely shameful that there are still colleges, especially publics, that are still providing this advantage,” said James Murphy, a vocal legacy admissions critic and deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now, a progressive think tank.
Murphy has scanned hundreds of colleges’ Common Data Sets, or CDS, in his research on the subject. It’s not an easy chunk of data to parse. Each college has its own profile, so there’s no aggregated CDS information on legacy preferences.
Colleges also err in this reporting, Murphy said. They might leave sections of the CDS blank or information on it might change year to year, he said.
Last year, the University of Connecticut said on its CDS that it considers alumni relationships in admissions, though a spokesperson at the time told Higher Ed Dive that was merely a reporting mistake.
Common Data Sets can also lack context. Consider a case at New York University, a selective private nonprofit institution.
The university has not admitted students on a legacy basis “for some years,” spokesperson Joseph Tirella wrote in an email last week. However, the institution indicated on its most recent CDS that it does consider alumni.
That’s because the university has included a question on the Common Application where applicants can flag that they’re children of alumni, Tirella said.
The Common App, an online portal enabling students to apply to more than 1,000 institutions, allows colleges to customize some of their questions. New York University will remove the one on alumni relationships for the next admissions cycle, Tirella said.
In hindsight, the university probably should have reported on its CDS that it does not factor in alumni relations, Tirella said.
“That would have been a more accurate description of how we used the information in our decision-making — but because we did have the question on the form, ‘Considered’ seemed a valid answer as well,” he said. “We appreciate that it has caused confusion, especially now, when the issue of legacy admissions is being scrutinized.”
For Murphy, cases like New York University show that one of the biggest deficiencies in legacy data is a missing universal definition.
“You can’t unsee legacy status. The only fair way to do it is not to have it available at all.”
Deputy director of higher education policy at think tank Education Reform Now
If a college’s application readers can see prospective students’ connections to alumni, then they'll rely on legacy admissions, Murphy said. That’s the case at Boston University, which said it won’t factor in alumni relations but will still ask about them on its application, its student newspaper reported.
“You can’t unsee legacy status,” Murphy said. “The only fair way to do it is not to have it available at all.”
Other data sources
A newer data source on legacy admissions is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, a publicly available database administered by Educaton Department.
Colleges report to IPEDS on enrollment, tuition, admissions practices and other statistics. For the 2022-23 academic year, the Education Department began asking about colleges’ use of legacy status. However, colleges self-report IPEDS information, creating openings for potential misinterpretations.
Winter 2022-23 IPEDS data will become publicly available in either late November or early December, according to the Education Department.
IPEDS defines legacy status as “students who have a familial tie to an institution including parents or relatives who are alumni or a sibling who currently attends.” This interpretation is based on Education Department research of multiple institutions’ practices, the agency said.
News outlets and higher education organizations alike have also attempted to quantify use of legacy admissions, either through their own surveys or public databases.
Both avenues have limitations.
The Washington Post in July identified more than 100 high-profile colleges that consider legacy status, but the publication partly relied on what are potentially flawed CDS profiles.
Inside Higher Ed administers its own annual admissions survey that inquires about colleges’ legacy policies, but this year, fewer than 240 admissions officers filled it out, meaning it’s not necessarily representative of the thousands of U.S. colleges.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling usually surveys institutions every year about their processes, including whether they incorporate legacy policies, said Melissa Clinedinst, its director of research and grants.
That survey was put on hold for the entering classes of fall 2019 through fall 2022, Clinedinst said. Of the 185 institutions responding to a legacy question in this year’s version, more than 65% reported that alumni relations do not influence admissions at all.
Do colleges think legacy status matters?
Clinedinst agreed having a common definition would help in a survey, but that could prove tricky, she said.
“On a national survey like that, how much detail can you really get into without adding survey burden?” she asked.
Even small-scale surveys on this issue can pose problems, though.
In 2019, California enacted a law mandating that some private colleges disclose whether they give preference to students with links to alumni or donors. They must do this annually until 2024. The catalyst for the law was the Varsity Blues scandal, which exposed high-profile and celebrity parents for bribing their children’s way into prominent institutions.
The most recent data collection under that law found five California private colleges give a leg up to applicants with alumni and donor ties.
A few years ago, Pitzer College, one of the state’s high-profile private colleges, reported it gave preference to alumni applicants.
But it in fact didn’t, said Santiago Ybarra, who was the institution’s admissions director at the time. Ybarra is now assistant admissions director at University of California, Santa Cruz.
Ybarra doesn’t remember the question’s precise phrasing, but he recalled the state worded it in such a vague way that Pitzer officials incorrectly said the college factored in legacy. They later saw how other peer institutions responded to the question and corrected the mistake the following year, Ybarra said.
Criticism against legacy piles up
Ybarra argued institutions aren’t incentivized to clear up their legacy policies.
Vague policies allow them wiggle room to say they don’t formally look at legacy connections on applications, but they could still court a wealthy alumni donor — who might have a child.
Colleges know when an applicant is related to alumni or a faculty member, even if there’s no documentation, Ybarra said.
“It’s always a conversation,” he said.
Though legacy status may be a minor part of the admissions world, it’s something policymakers are newly paying attention to.
The issue arose during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the lawsuits against the race-conscious admissions practices of Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That court case was one of the first occasions that revealed the Biden administration wasn’t keen on legacy policies.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the U.S. government, suggested it would be open to the high court banishing legacy admissions. And President Joe Biden has said in public statements that policies like legacy “expand privilege instead of opportunity.”
“Our most inclusive institutions often lack sufficient resources while the most selective well-resourced ones overwhelmingly admit applicants from affluent backgrounds,” James Kvaal, U.S. undersecretary of education, the department’s top higher ed official, said in a written statement to Higher Ed Dive.
“Colleges and universities should take a long look at their policies and practices that expand privilege instead of opportunity and that includes preferences for legacies. We need to level the playing field — especially in college admissions.”
Legacy admissions carry a long history of prejudice. The concept became more popular after World War II. Ivy League institutions, which until then dominated the higher ed space, historically had admitted mostly male, White and Protestant students. Turning to legacy preferences was a way of becoming more selective, thus boxing out the rising number of Jewish applicants.
Since then, the legacy admissions concept has perennially drawn questions of fairness.
In one case, after the Education Department investigated Harvard’s admissions practices in 1988 over accusations they discriminated against Asian Americans, the late Republican Sen. Bob Dole called for the agency to review the legality of legacy preferences.
Nothing ever came of his request.
But this year, the Education Department started investigating Harvard once again, this time for whether its legacy admissions policies constitute racial discrimination.
In 2021, when Colorado became the first state to ban legacy admissions at its public colleges, it said such preferential treatment harmed “students who are undocumented, first-generation, immigrants, or underrepresented minorities and who do not have the same relationships to Colorado higher education institutions,” according to legislation text.
Other states, like New York, have proposed legacy bans. So have federal lawmakers. A bipartisan bill introduced recently called the Merit Act would create an accreditation standard barring colleges from giving admissions preference based on relationships to alumni or donors.
Those lawmakers have the public on their side — 75% of Americans said it’s improper for colleges to favor applicants whose parents attended the institution, according to a 2022 Washington Post-Schar School poll.
It’s key, too, for the public to understand the breadth and influence of the legacy policies, Murphy said. The colleges that draw on legacy preferences are some of the most selective and prominent, so who attends them is important, he said. Highly selective institutions often graduate the students who end up in the highest levels of government and industry.
“There’s an absolutely public responsibility for who we are setting up in America to be the next generation of doctors, lawyers and millionaires,” Murphy said.