The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New evidence shows: it’s time to rethink legacy admissions at elite colleges

The campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in July 2014.
The campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in July 2014. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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HERE IS what happened at Johns Hopkins University after the Baltimore school stopped giving preference for admission to applicants who are related to its alumni. The incoming class became more diverse. It became more high-achieving. There were significant increases in the proportion of first-generation students.

Here is what didn’t happen. No big outcry. No decline in alumni giving.

So positive has been the experience of Johns Hopkins that other top U.S. colleges and universities where legacy preferences are a long-ingrained tradition need to ask what, if any, purpose is being served. Universities play a critical role in creating opportunity and promoting social mobility, or should, so why advantage students who already are advantaged?

Johns Hopkins started to phase out legacy admissions several years ago without any fanfare. University President Ronald J. Daniels told the Chronicle of Higher Education that officials kept the Board of Trustees apprised of the change but proceeded gradually and with caution because it was unclear what the impact would be. But as they became convinced the change had enriched the school and was something to be proud of, they recently went public.

University officials noted that changes in the student body — including a rise in freshmen qualifying for federal Pell Grants — is not solely the result of elimination of legacy preferences. Other factors, such as augmenting financial aid funds and how the school is marketed, are also at play, but taking a thumb off the scale that benefited the children and other relatives of alumni gave the school the flexibility it needed to create a more diverse student body with no diminution in academic quality.

Of the top 100 colleges and universities in the United States, about three-fourths use legacy preferences when considering admissions. Mr. Daniels, who spent much of his career in Canada, where there is no such formalized preference in admissions (also the case in European universities), noted the seeming contradiction between rewarding applicants for the accident of their family connections and this country’s commitment to merit and equal opportunity. Elite schools first implemented legacy preferences in the 1920s as a way to limit the admission of immigrants — particularly Jews — and that sordid beginning only underscores the need for reexamination.

A good place to start is with a blog post written in 2012 by an assistant director in the admissions office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has never used legacy preferences. “I personally would not work for a college which had legacy admission,” wrote Chris Peterson, “because I am not interested in simply reproducing a multigenerational lineage of educated elite. And if anyone in our office ever advocated for a mediocre applicant on the basis of their ‘excellent pedigree’ they would be kicked out of the committee room. So to be clear: if you got into M.I.T., it’s because you got into M.I.T. Simple as that.”

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Legacy admissions benefit universities — and families

The Post’s View: A judge made the right call in upholding Harvard’s admissions system

Michael Crow: It’s time to end the obsession with college exclusivity

Robert J. Samuelson: Here’s how to fix the college admissions system. Warning: You might hate this.