It’s time to eliminate legacy preference in Stanford admissions

June 4, 2014, 6:30 a.m.

This April, when Stanford released its admissions statistics, most celebrated was that our admit rate had dropped to 5.07 percent, below every Ivy League university. It certainly is a blessing that we are able to pick one out of 20 students from a body of 42,167 applicants. With such a rich talent pool to select and places at Stanford scarce, it is wrong to offer a preferential admissions process to legacy applicants due to their extrinsic and class-defined characteristics of having a parent or step-parent with a graduate or undergraduate degree from Stanford.

Let me clarify what legacy preference is. The article “What it Takes” in the November/December 2013 issue of Stanford Magazine said the following: “[Dean of Admissions Richard] Shaw is a strong advocate for considering legacy status in the overall student assessment, but emphasizes that it is only relevant if the student is competitive in all other aspects.”

This sounds reasonable, since if all things are equal, why shouldn’t Stanford extend this opportunity to a person already “in the Stanford family”? Another line in this article put this sentiment into question, however: “It used to be that every application would be read twice. Now, only one reading is guaranteed, although – thanks, Mom and Dad – every legacy application still gets two sets of eyes.” This means that regardless of the quality of an application, a legacy applicant gets a second opportunity to state his case to the admissions board.

Legacy preferences force our already overloaded admit personnel to evaluate legacy students vs. non-legacies through an asymmetric process, measuring the intrinsic qualities of non-legacies – such as their critical thinking and writing skills – against both the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of legacy applicants. While it could be argued that there are asymmetries involved when evaluating any non-academic variables such as musical talent, athletic skill, difficult life circumstances or any other number of potential variables, I argue that these at least involve some level of personal development and imply the overcoming of obstacles by the applicant, unlike legacy status. Furthermore, comparisons become even more challenging when Stanford’s admissions officers may collectively have only one opportunity to look at a standard application, but two chances to read a legacy application.

How much of an effect does legacy preference actually have on admissions? In a 2011 study by Michael Hurwitz of 30 selective colleges, his experiments showed that legacy applicants enjoyed an average 23.3 percent boost in admission rates after controlling for SAT scores, personal statement quality and the strength of teacher recommendations. In the September/October 2013 issue of Stanford Magazine, President Hennessey stated, “…for alumni children, even though the admissions rate for them is two or three times higher than the general population, it’s still very tough to get in.” [My emphasis.]Assuming the median of Hennessy’s estimated legacy admit rate, or 2.5 times the general admit rate (12.5 percent), this means the legacy acceptance rate would drop to about 10 percent. If 10 percent of Stanford’s Class of 2018 is currently made up of legacies (equal, for example, to the proportion of legacies at Brown University, according to their Dean of Admissions Jim Miller), it follows that approximately 173 – as opposed to 213 – legacy students would be admitted.

Who are these approximately 40 students per year who would otherwise not be accepted? We can’t speak specifically, but the makeup of legacy applicants is largely from the upper-income brackets. Stanford alumni go on to be far more economically successful than the general population, with an average mid-career salary of $114,000 versus the $51,017 national median household income. This means that applications from underprivileged students – students who have already overcome the challenges of getting a fee-waiver or saving money just to apply to Stanford – face an added barrier of competing against typically upper-income legacy-preference applications. I believe this stark reality is a strong argument against this form of plutocracy.

I propose that to end this plutocracy, we should take a first step of removing the rule that legacy applications will be read twice. Eventually, I hope that we can completely remove the field on the application that lets you write in your relatives that went to Stanford. Moreover, I hope that we can promote a dialogue about what our admissions process should look like, examining how we should deal with the various incomparable intrinsic qualities that we also select our students for (such as the examples I mentioned above, including socioeconomic status, athletic ability and so on and so forth). This is an important dialogue that needs to reshape itself over time, as I believe it must radically do right now.

To some practical concerns. Will Stanford’s endowment suffer if we turn away the grandchildren of wealthy alumni donors such as John Arrillaga ($151 million in 2013), or if we replace tuition ($56,411 per year) from wealthier legacies with financial aid packages? Although the extra money does fund financial aid and teacher salaries and infrastructure improvements, my response is, “Should we care?” When the Board of Trustees quoted our Statement on Investment Responsibility (1971), saying that they would stop investment in coal companies since the endowment should not invest in “corporate policies or practices that create substantial social injury,” they confirmed that we should not acquiesce to financial ends when it severely compromises our values. We should extend similar protections to the ideal of meritocracy that a liberal education such as Stanford’s is supposed to espouse.

As President Hennessy said to Stanford Magazine, “For every student who gets in, we turn down two or three who are just as good.” The problem is that by choosing 40 legacy applicants every year as opposed to the 40 who would otherwise get those spots, we say to every single one of those “just as good” students that maybe they could’ve gotten into Stanford, if only they had been born with the correct, Stanford, upper-class accent.


Jonathan Poto ’14


Jonathan Poto ’14 is a B.S. Candidate in MS&E. Contact him at [email protected].

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