New study finds that legacy status is a strong advantage at elite universities

Jan. 10, 2011, 2:01 a.m.

Legacy applicants have better odds of admission at elite colleges than previously estimated, shows a recent study by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In his analysis of 30 selective colleges, Hurwitz controlled for a broad array of variables and found that legacy applicants enjoyed a 23.3-point increase in their probability of admission.

Among legacy applicants, those who fell in the “primary legacy” category enjoyed an even higher 45.1-point increase in their odds of acceptance. Primary legacies are students with at least one parent who attended the college or university as an undergraduate, as opposed to those with looser family ties.

The statistical results of the study provide an aggregate picture of the sampled schools but obscure variation among the institutions’ stances toward legacies.

Many universities–Stanford included–are usually tight-lipped about their legacy admissions statistics, though the University’s Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid acknowledged this fall that Stanford may give preference to applicants whose parents graduated from here.

According to a 2003 report titled “A New Approach to Alumni Legacy Policies in Admissions,” Thomas Loverro found that Stanford’s legacy admittance rate was around 14 to 15 percent of the total applicant pool. Legacy admit rates were about two to two and a half times the general admit rate from 1984 to 2003, according to the report.

Dean of Undergraduate Admission Richard Shaw emphasizes that legacy status does not guarantee admission.

“The reality of this is that the majority of students that are legacies do not get in,” Shaw said. But legacies are very strong candidates, he said.

“In looking at our quantitative measures, our legacy enrollees or admits tend to be stronger than the median of the admitted class,” Shaw said. “It shatters another perception that unqualified or less qualified students are getting into Stanford because they are sons or daughters of parents who have come before them.”

Hurwitz’s findings stand apart from previous studies that underestimated the legacy advantage. Hurwitz utilized a quantitative method called conditional logistical regression analysis to eliminate certain biases in his analysis. He used a data set of students who applied to multiple highly selective institutions and controlled for varying selectivity among the sample of colleges and universities.

The outcomes show that the legacy admission advantage is consistent across the student ability range and across institutions of varying selectivity. This advantage is magnified through early-admission programs.

According to Shaw, Stanford classifies students as legacies only if one of their parents obtained a degree here.

“Stanford has a proud and long tradition of access and opportunity to all sorts of populations from its founding,” Shaw said. “One of the populations that we certainly celebrate is the sons and daughters of those who have come before.”

“Interestingly, as time goes on, as the world becomes more diverse, the next generations of parents who might have children applying will be much more diverse than heretofore,” he continued. “And, in fact, the children of the first generation students here now may very well look forward to the opportunity to give their kids a chance to apply and be competitive for a position in the class.”

Stanford legacies who were accepted tend to say their parents’ experiences reinforced their decision to apply and enroll.

Jessica Kung ’14 has ties to the Farm that go back to her father, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford.

“My dad always talked about how he enjoyed Stanford, and we visited a few times,” Kung said.

This legacy perspective is one reason why Stanford has always been her first-choice university, she said: “It was embedded in me so long ago.”

Hurwitz’s study did not focus on the causes of the legacy admissions advantage, but a frequently cited explanation argues that there is a link between colleges’ desire to increase alumni donations and legacy admissions. In 2009, Stanford raised $640 million–more than any other college or university.

“I don’t know whether the legacy admissions advantage is related to charitable giving,” Hurwitz said in an e-mail to The Daily. “This seems like a plausible hypothesis, and the conclusion of any study that endeavors to investigate this research question would probably be sensitive to the colleges included.”

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