End to legacy admissions preference at Amherst raises question: Should Williams follow suit?

Gabe Miller

Amherst announced that they would end legacy admissions and expand their financial aid program. (Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.)

Amherst — the school that is at once Williams’ fiercest rival and closest peer — announced on Oct. 20 that it will end legacy preference in admissions and expand its financial aid programs.

“Now is the time to end this historic program that inadvertently limits educational opportunity,” Amherst President Biddy Martin wrote in a statement to the community. “We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status.”

Amherst will be expanding its no-loan financial aid program, providing full-tuition grants to those whose families earn in the lower 80 percent of U.S. household incomes, increasing aid for families earning up to $200,000 annually, and capping expected work-study contributions at four hours per week.

As Amherst makes moves that it says will increase institutional equity, eyes turn to whether Williams should follow in its peer’s footsteps.

According to Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01, the College is not currently following Amherst’s lead in ending legacy preference in admissions. “The Amherst announcement is a fresh entry in the ongoing reconsideration of college admission practices, and we support them in making the choice that was right for them,” Creighton wrote in an email to the Record.

She added that, at Williams, legacy status is not the determining factor in a student’s acceptance.“ Legacy status confers a slight benefit at the end of the process, when comparing the most qualified and compelling students,” Creighton said. “It’s never the sole factor, because of our use of a holistic process. A legacy has to be a good match with the many goals we have for the class we’re admitting.”

In recent years, legacy students have accounted for approximately 11 percent of incoming classes, President Maud S. Mandel said during a Family Day Q&A last Saturday.

Some alums urge Williams to end legacy preference

In the wake of Amherst’s announcement, the Record invited alums to share their thoughts through a post on the “You know you went to Williams College if…” Facebook group. Many said that the College should aim to create a more equitable admissions process and argued that getting rid of legacy preference is one step towards that goal. Those advocating against legacy preference claim that it unfairly reserves admissions spots just on the basis of an applicant’s parents’ alma maters.

“If someone wants to go to the same school as their parents, there’s… nothing wrong with that,” Dominic Madera ’21 said. “But where it becomes a problem is the ways that [legacy admissions preference] basically carves out space for generational wealth and generational inequity.”

“We have the opportunity to really change some policies that have historically hurt Williams, and we have [admissions officers committed to equity] there to change things,” Madera, a former College tour guide, noted. Even so, Madera qualified his remarks, adding that “no one policy will fix everything.”

Jeff Reardon ’89 wrote in an email to the Record that he strongly supports ending legacy preference in admissions. “Economic and social diversity … [is] just as important as ethnic and racial diversity, and a high proportion of legacy admissions is an obstacle to achieving diversity on all levels,” he said. “I’m disappointed to see Amherst leading us on this, and we should follow their example ASAP,” Reardon added.

The financial consequences of legacy preference

Arguments in defense of legacy preference admissions often claim that alums are more likely to donate to the College if they feel a sense of continued connection to the institution. In this view, legacy admission preferences for their children are a way of building this long-term relationship, using the lure of future admission as an incentive to maintain involvement and drive donations, as well as creating a sense of the College taking care of its alums.

To some alums, legacy admissions preference feels directly related to donations, even if no official policies to that effect have been disclosed. “[I] have always assumed that the ‘legacy preference’ is tied at least in part to donation history,” Tim Pinto ’93 wrote to the Record.

Alain Ades ’78 wrote to the Record that he believes getting rid of legacy preference admissions would substantially reduce the loyalty of alums to the College, lower Williams’ national ranking among liberal arts colleges by decreasing the admissions yield rate (assuming children of alums are more likely to accept offers of acceptance), and do nothing to prevent what he called “big whale” donations from inequitably affecting admissions decisions.

Samuel P. Chapman ’86 argued that having fewer donations due to getting rid of a legacy preference policy would lead to fewer funds for financial aid in the future, hurting the College’s ability to increase access to higher education for students from lower-income backgrounds. “Don’t sacrifice critical financial aid in a failed bid for fairness,” he said.

Yet to Schuyler Colfax ’25, arguments in favor of legacy admission preference do not capture the effects it has on perceptions of the admissions process. “It just doesn’t seem to me like the benefit that [legacy preference] provides, in terms of… intangible increases in the likelihood of donation, could possibly outweigh the damage that it does to the reputation of the admissions process,” he said.

Moreover, while the argument goes that ending legacy preference in admissions would stymie donations, some alums said that they would give more to the College in the wake of such a decision.

“Eliminating the legacy preference would make me feel better about giving to Williams,” Cliff Majersik ’91 wrote.

Effects of legacy on equity, campus culture

During the Family Day Q-and-A, Mandel told a crowd of students and families that the abolition of legacy preference would not be a silver bullet to make the College’s admissions process more equitable. “At Williams, we do think that the legacy focus misses the underlying problem of social capital,” she said. “If you don’t admit a legacy student, under the current system of the way admissions works, chances are that spot is going to be filled by a child of alumni from another elite school.”

To that point, many alums, even those who advocate ending legacy preference, said they view legacy preference admissions as only one of many factors that stand in the way of equitable college admissions.

Eleanor Putnam-Farr ’00 expressed this view, writing to the College in an email she later shared with the Record that legacy is simply one advantage on top of many afforded to certain applicants. “I was not a legacy at Williams… but I benefited from all of the things that normally accompany legacy status simply due to my position as an upper-middle class white American born to college educated parents,” Putnam-Farr wrote. “I had an excellent high school education with access to AP exams, great college guidance, SAT prep, the ability to participate in a variety of sports, volunteer opportunities, and more.”

To Putnam-Farr, these other factors underscore the inequity of legacy status in admissions. “I want my children to succeed and I try to give them every opportunity to do so,” she added. “If they cannot be accepted to Williams based on what they have achieved with all those advantages, then I don’t think we should perpetuate a system that gives them yet another advantage on top of everything else.”

Some alums maintained that legacy preference helps to promote strong connections between the College’s history and its present.

“I think the entire school benefits from having a portion of the student body come in having already been steeped in the school’s history and culture, and perhaps some slightly preconceived notions about the greatness of the school,” Pinto wrote.

Even so, the presence of an explicit legacy admissions preference, however slight, can create feelings of uneasiness and exclusion on campus for non-legacy students. “It’s about the practice and the kind of social environment that it can create,” Madera said.

In Majersik’s experience, the culture created by legacy preference admissions can also have the effect of discouraging admitted legacy students from attending, fearing others would think their admission was not on their own merits.

“My daughter was admitted to Williams and thought that Williams would be a good fit,” Majersik wrote. “She agonized until the midnight deadline but then chose Bowdoin. She didn’t want her peers to think that she had only been admitted as a legacy…. Had Williams not had a legacy preference and she still been admitted, then she would likely be an Eph now.”

Financial aid offerings

Amherst’s newly expanded financial aid programming also contrasts with that of Williams. In 2008, both Williams and Amherst adopted no-loan financial aid policies. In 2010, however, Williams reinstated loans, citing a $500-million loss to its endowment amid the recession.

Currently, the College still includes loans in its financial aid packages for students from families earning more than $75,000 per year. Thirty-five percent of the Class of 2017 took out loans, for an average cumulative debt of $16,230, according to the College’s financial aid website.

In light of the fact that the College’s endowment increased to $3.2 billion this year — up from $2.8 billion as of June 30, 2020 — students and alums are asking why the College has not expanded its financial aid to match or exceed that of Amherst.

As part of Amherst’s recent announcement, students’ expected work-study contributions will be capped at four hours per week. Williams, in contrast, typically expects six to eight hours per week, though some students elect to work up to 10. Jake Padilla ’25 said the large expectation of work-study revenue precludes some students at the College who receive financial aid from getting involved in campus activities that build the connections that will serve the students in the future and contribute to their experience at the College. “I think it should be lowered to at the very most four hours,” Padilla said.

In an email to the Record, Creighton wrote that no-loan aid and fewer expected work-study hours are “long-term aspirations” for the College, but not the focus of current investments. Instead, the College has dedicated funding to other programs, including offering free textbooks for students receiving aid, covering the costs of health insurance for students receiving aid who are otherwise uninsured or underinsured, and offering waivers for expected summer job earnings contributions. “[R]ight now, we are investing resources in areas that we believe have the greatest impact on students’ experiences,” she wrote.

To Madera, what the College needs to do is simple: Do as Amherst has done and make the admissions process more equitable through the elimination of legacy preference and the expansion of financial aid programs. “The only factors that admission should be: what are you bringing to the table and how will you impact our community in positive ways,” he said.