At Elite Colleges, Legacy Status May Count More Than Was Previously Thought

January 05, 2011

Family connections help you get into college. And a new paper suggests that at highly selective colleges, they may count even more than was previously thought.

A researcher at Harvard University recently examined the impact of legacy status at 30 highly selective colleges and concluded that, all other things being equal, legacy applicants got a 23.3-percentage-point increase in their probability of admission. If the applicants' connection was a parent who attended the college as an undergraduate, a "primary legacy," the increase was 45.1-percentage points.

In other words, if a nonlegacy applicant faced a 15-percent chance of admission, an identical applicant who was a primary legacy would have a 60-percent chance of getting in.

The new study is sure to add fuel to the debate over the role of legacy admissions, particularly in determining who gets into the country's most-sought-after colleges. And it sheds light on advantages that colleges themselves may not have even been fully aware of. The author, Michael Hurwitz, controlled for a broader range of variables, such as student character and high-school activities, than had traditional analyses. In doing so, he found that the other, more-common method underestimates the advantage for legacies.

"Some colleges may think this admissions advantage is justifiable or they may use the findings to reshape their policies," says Mr. Hurwitz, a doctoral candidate in quantitative policy analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He also looked at the difference between legacies with a primary connection and those with looser connections—a parent who attended graduate school, or a sibling, grandparent, aunt, or uncle who attended as a graduate or undergraduate. He found that the tighter connection, while less common, provides a much larger benefit.

"The takeaway to me is that here's a study that seeks to control for a number of factors and finds that legacy status is even more important than previously thought," says Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the editor of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. "It's more evidence that this is not a feather on the scale."

For an individual applicant, legacy or nonlegacy status may indeed matter a lot. But Mr. Hurwitz cautions that because of the size of the applicant pools at the sample colleges, legacy admits don't greatly decrease other students' already-long odds of acceptance. Of the 290,000-plus applications he studied, only about 6 percent had legacy status.

An article on his study, "The Impact of Legacy Status on Undergraduate Admissions at Elite Colleges and Universities," was published last month in the journal Economics of Education Review. The data come from 133,236 unique applicants for freshman admission in the fall of 2007 at 30 highly selective private colleges and universities.

Mr. Hurwitz's research found that legacy students, on average, had slightly higher SAT scores than nonlegacies. But he was able to control for that factor, as well as athlete status, gender, race, and many less-quantifiable characteristics. He also controlled for differences in the selectivity of the colleges.

He was able to do so by focusing on the large number of high-school students (47 percent) who submitted applications to more than one of the colleges in the sample. A given applicant's characteristics, like the wealth of their family or strength of their high school, wouldn't vary from college to college. But their legacy status would, and so too might their admissions outcomes. (Mr. Hurwitz also ran an analysis that showed that students who applied to multiple colleges were representative of the overall pool.)

He found that traditional analyses, which control for some of the major quantifiable measures, like SAT scores, but for fewer variables over all, underestimated the legacy advantage. What that means, he says, is that some unquantifiable aspects of legacies' applications—such as life experiences, type of high school, or extracurricular activities—must otherwise work against their chances of admission. But he says, "the data aren't rich enough to tell what that is."

Thomas J. Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University who has done key research on legacies, says that the new estimates are not widely different from those in previous studies, but that, nonetheless, the larger advantage is notable. Previous studies also had not looked at differences between various familial connections, he says.

A Handed-Down Benefit

Across the board, primary legacies got a greater advantage than secondary legacies. The difference seemed to matter the most at the most-selective colleges in the sample, those with an average base acceptance rate of just under 10 percent. Secondary legacy status at those top-tier colleges conferred an estimated advantage of 8.7 percentage points, while primary legacy gave a 51.6-point advantage.

Legacy status of any kind mattered more at the most-selective and least-selective colleges than it did at those in the middle tiers. The data didn't reveal why, but Mr. Hurwitz thinks that, because such a small proportion of qualified applicants are admitted at the most-selective colleges, any edge over another applicant is magnified—while the less-selective colleges may be most eager to cultivate alumni loyalty and giving.

The data set did not contain information on giving, so Mr. Hurwitz could not look at how much of the legacy advantage comes simply from having relatives who attended a college versus from having relatives who not only attended a college but also donated to it.

Mr. Hurwitz also looked at how students within certain SAT ranges fared against one another. There wasn't a clear-cut pattern, but generally the higher the SAT score, the more legacy status mattered. That finding, Mr. Hurwitz says, seems in line with colleges' argument that legacy status matters the most in deciding between two highly-qualified candidates. "It's easier to justify nudging the student if they're really strong academically," he says.

Legacy and the SAT

The legacy advantage varies depending on what SAT range an applicant falls in. Below are the percentage-point increases in admissions probability for three different types of legacies.

SAT Score

Any Legacy

Primary Legacy

Secondary Legacy

Source: Michael Hurwitz, Economics of Education Review


































Richard H. Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid at Stanford University, says his office considers students to be legacies only if one of their parents earned a degree from the university, with an emphasis on undergraduate degrees. Such status is taken into account among many factors, he said, but it certainly does not trump competitive expectations. Mr. Shaw said the university's legacy admits are generally stronger than the median of the admitted class, based on quantitative measures, like test scores, rigor, and grades.

"Stanford also has a high percentage of admitted and enrolling first-generation students each year whose parents did not graduate from a four-year college or university," Mr. Shaw wrote in an e-mail. "We consider access and opportunity a very important principal. We also value intergenerational connections to the Stanford experience."

Several other highly selective colleges declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Hurwitz will not name the colleges in his sample; he signed an agreement pledging not to do so in exchange for what would otherwise be private data.

Very few colleges, however, have admissions rates approaching anything as low as 10 percent. The study also references other research that has relied on similar data from a group called the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, which comprises all the Ivy League institutions and two dozen other highly competitive private universities and liberal-arts colleges.

Whatever their identity, the colleges in the study are very selective. And Mr. Hurwitz says the findings are most likely to be of relevance to officials and would-be students at similarly-competitive colleges.