Legacy admissions and affirmative action, components of the college application process in the United States, have long been under debate. For a nation that praises ethnic impartiality and undeniable accessibility on the basis of demographics, the US college application process contradicts these principles of legal and ethical equality. In simple terms, legacy admissions and affirmative action both grant students with certain demographic factors a better chance to access higher education, disproportionately benefiting certain groups of students solely based on race. While legacy admissions primarily benefit wealthy white students with direct alumni relatives and institutional connections, affirmative action seeks to aid marginalized minority groups. Both systems appear to subvert the recognized merit-based system and go against the basis of fairness.
Legacy and affirmative admissions both originated in the 1900s. Legacy admissions date back to the 1920s when some colleges began to use the practice to indirectly limit the number of minority and immigrant students, especially Jewish students. They achieved this by giving preference to alumni children, who tended to be wealthy whites because of the lack of equitable education access and the extreme social class gap at the time. For many first-generation, low-income students of color, the road to college was filled with challenges deeply rooted in America’s history of systemic social and educational inequality for all people. These students often attended poorly-funded public schools, putting them at an academic disadvantage compared to their comparatively privileged peers, who were mostly white at the time. This also meant these first-generation students’ children would not have legacy status when it came time for them to compete for limited spots at universities that use it as a factor when weighing admissions, giving them an inherent disadvantage in the process. Because legacy admissions prioritize white applicants, it often comes at the cost of student diversity. Although elite colleges and universities claim they want to diversify their student bodies, their practice and high regard for legacy undermine that. In 2015, Black and Hispanic students were even more underrepresented at top colleges than in 1980 despite affirmative action. Studies show that legacy students are up to eight times as likely to be accepted at elite colleges. A 2021 report from the Boston Globe also found that children of Harvard alumni were accepted at a rate of 33.6 percent in the classes of 2014–19, compared with 5.9 percent for non-legacies. As more high schoolers apply to top schools, the acceptance rate for legacies remains constant while it tumbles for everyone else. Because so few parents of color have graduated from these colleges, legacy admissions remain overwhelmingly white, even with affirmative action.
On the other hand, affirmative action sought to aid marginalized groups and minorities, essentially the opposite of the original purpose of legacy admissions. The phrase “affirmative action” derives from the 1960s during the civil rights movement. It was first used in the workforce when Lyndon B. Johnson passed an executive order to prioritize hiring people of color. However, affirmative action was quickly adopted by many colleges across the United States in an attempt to combat long-held racial discrimination, such as in the form of legacy admissions. In 1969, many elite universities admitted more than twice as many Black students as they had the year before. Jerome Karabel, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and college admissions historian, said, “I don’t see how you can understand it apart from the upheavals on campus, racial upheavals in the larger society, the general upheavals around the world.” Many civil rights activists advocated for schools to admit more students of color, and colleges continued to expand affirmative action in an effort to expand access to higher education. The current president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, had told the New York Times, “In that time, there was a sense, pure and simple, that universities had to do their part to help integrate higher education.” Despite the initial motives to establish affirmative action as a way to combat racial discrimination long rooted within the American education system, it quickly triggered a backlash, particularly among white applicants who claimed they were victims of “reverse discrimination.” Robert L. Kirkpatrick Jr, Wesleyan University’s dean of admissions in the late 1960s, told The New York Times: “Did we really understand or know what we were doing, or could we have predicted what the issues would be? The answer is no. I think we were instinctively trying to do the right thing.” Despite the countless Supreme Court cases attempting to rule against affirmative action, the Supreme Court has continuously upheld that affirmative action will help create student diversity.
However, although the purpose of affirmative action is to uphold student diversity, it has also promoted racial discrimination and reduced college admissions based on race. In 2014, a federal lawsuit was filed against Harvard undergraduate admissions, accusing them of unlawful practices for discriminating against Asian Americans. According to an admissions officer at Harvard, it is because “so many of them looked just like each other on paper.” The lawsuit alleges that Harvard effectively employs quotas on the number of Asians admitted and holds them to a higher standard than whites. In fact, a 2009 Princeton study showed that Asians had to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites to have the same chance of admission to top universities. At selective colleges, Asians are demographically overrepresented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool. Since 1990, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has ranged between 16 percent and 19 percent, while the percentage of Asian American applicants has doubled, making them the largest demographic in the applicant pool. The clear disadvantage Asian Americans receive due to affirmative action has ultimately led to many Asian applicants hiding their racial identity and not indicating their race in their application. Max Li, a 19-year-old junior at Harvard who did not indicate his race upon application, told the New York Times, “I guess I perceived that being Asian is a net negative to your college admissions.” The complaint against Harvard discriminating against Asian Americans highlights the school’s history of using similar language to describe and limit Jewish students nearly a century ago, using legacy status to give an advantage to wealthy whites. If diversity of various kinds is central to an elite school’s mission like Harvard’s, affirmative action has done nothing except promote racial inequality and has led to Asian Americans being inherently qualified at a disadvantage solely because of their race.
Although affirmative action seeks to reverse the effects of legacy admissions, it has also led to the same criticisms of racial discrimination as legacy admissions. However, more students seem to support affirmative action than legacy—69 percent of students say the legacy admissions process is unfair, while only 39 percent of students say affirmative action is unfair. Clearly, both systems have their drawbacks and justified criticisms. Despite the initial intentions behind affirmative action to seek a more diverse student body, it has ultimately led to students having to hide their identity, which is especially ironic for elite universities that claim to promote individuality and identity. Although racial diversity is an important factor in student bodies, disproportionately evaluating and giving an advantage to certain demographics over others merely because of race is not the way to achieve it.
Student diversity is needed, not racial discrimination and disproportionate admission. Legacy admissions serve no purpose other than to bolster a school’s pride, connections, and wealth in exchange for equal access to higher education among students. Whatever is used to ensure student diversity, whether it’s removing legacy and affirmative action as a whole or revising their effects on student admissions, college applications should maintain merit- and academic-based systems and not subvert admissions on the sole basis of race.