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Why do colleges still give preference to children of alumni?

The recent revelation by T. Rees Shapiro in The Washington Post that the University of Virginia kept a watch list of VIP applicants for special handling wasn’t that surprising, given that prominent universities have long sought to help prominent donors and even the children of Hollywood stars. What perhaps was most surprising was the casualness in which U-Va. officials discussed applicants with donor ties in the internal documents obtained by the newspaper.

But the existence of the U-Va. watch list, which also included prominent alumni donors, raises an important question about the modern college admissions system: Why do campuses still give preferential treatment to the children of graduates?

Legacy admissions is particularly an issue at dozens of selective colleges and universities, which have become ever more difficult to gain admittance to in recent years. Every spring, the most elite colleges and universities announce their acceptance rates for next fall’s freshman class, and every year it seems the number gets smaller and smaller (now somewhere south of 10 percent for Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton).

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What is almost never mentioned in these announcements is how many students were admitted because their parents graduated from the institution. That’s because few colleges publish their legacy admissions numbers.

Higher education researchers have sought over the years to measure the extent of legacy admissions. In reviewing admission data from 30 top colleges in the Economics of Education Review in 2011, Michael Hurwitz concluded that children of alumni at the time had a 45 percent greater chance of admission. The acceptance rate for legacies at Stanford University is estimated to be three times higher than the acceptance rate for the overall pool, which was just 4.7 percent last year.

The conventional wisdom about legacy admissions is that it helps boost alumni giving. The thinking goes that alumni are more likely to give to their alma mater if they have a good feeling about it, and that fondness only grows stronger if their children attend the school.

There is little evidence, however, that this longstanding belief about legacy admissions is actually true. In the book Affirmative Action for the Rich, Chad Coffman found that at seven institutions that dropped legacy preferences between 1998 and 2008, there was “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving as a result.”

The same book noted that in the 1960s, the percentage of legacies admitted to Yale dropped substantially, triggering alumni to protest. As a result, the acceptance figures for legacies eventually rose, only to drop again earlier this decade without notice at Yale.

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In recent years, elite colleges have come under fire for their lack of economic diversity, and for good reason. A quarter of the richest students in the country attend a selective, elite college, according to data released this year that was the most comprehensive look to date at the financial background of students on college campuses. At 38 colleges, including five in the Ivy League, there are more students from families in the top 1 percent in income than the bottom 60 percent. Less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of U.S. families by income attend an elite college.

Elite colleges have tried to shake the reputation that they are playgrounds for the rich by spending more money on recruiting low-income students and on financial aid, with a few schools promising that students whose families make under a certain income level will graduate debt-free. But even with increased spending on financial aid, at the top universities only 22 percent of students receive Pell grants—which mostly go to students from families making less than $50,000—compared to around 38 percent everywhere else.

The number of disadvantaged students coming to college is only expected to rise in the coming decade. In 2000, there were four states in which students from low-income families in elementary and secondary schools exceeded 50 percent of the school population, according to the Southern Education Foundation. In 2013, there were 20.

The easiest way for elite universities to bridge the growing economic divide on their campuses and have their student bodies look like the rest of America is to eliminate legacy admissions.