Legacy isn’t the problem; privilege is

Shaye Martin

On Oct. 20, Amherst announced a seemingly groundbreaking decision: an end to legacy preference in admissions. While Amherst’s decision has many supporters, most other elite institutions — including Williams — have yet to follow suit. In fact, as recently as 2021, Williams published a dataset summarizing its admissions process that “alumni/ae relation” is as important as an applicant’s application essay, extracurricular activities, or volunteer work during the admissions process.

In the past, legacy preference may have been important for regulating yield; students are more likely to attend a school their parents attended. But as acceptance rates continue to drop drastically, it is clear that fulfilling enrollment quotas with quality candidates is not a concern; Williams does not even consider an applicant’s demonstrated interest. While legacy admission could also be a method of maintaining school loyalty, the students most grateful to Williams are arguably those most affected by Williams’ opportunities. These students are overwhelmingly not legacy students. Legacy admissions is left with one final purpose: increasing alumni donations and school revenue. Due to the lack of widespread precedent, even the financial implications of legacy preference are largely unknown but are potentially far-reaching, and the necessity of revenue for school operation does not incentivize testing new policies. Understanding the financial underpinnings of legacy preference leads to the heart of the discourse. Dropping legacy preference will not effectively eradicate inequity from the admissions process as long as the College continues to assess potential students with criteria that favor those of privileged backgrounds.

Should elite colleges prioritize protecting their endowment over enrolling more economically disadvantaged students? When the question is phrased in this manner, it becomes clear that unfairness in admissions stems not from legacy preference but economic privilege. “Alumni/ae relation” becomes just one indicator of privilege in admission to elite institutions. Legacy students become scapegoats for broader frustration with inequity in admissions practices. A fairer distribution of this frustration would place far more emphasis on students from preparatory schools or children of large donors. Abolishing legacy preference would have a relatively negligible effect on privilege in college admissions. Colleges seek to protect their endowments, a goal they can accomplish by discriminating in favor of privileged students even without considering legacy. Amherst’s “groundbreaking” step distracts from fundamental issues as to how elite institutions review and select their candidates. That is not to say Amherst was wrong to abolish legacy preference, but rather that an institution does not absolve itself of unfair practices just because the most visible — but not most influential — element of inequity has been vanquished.

Eradicating economic privilege from admissions appears a nearly impossible task, as it is ingrained in every element of the process. The influence of privilege on admissions decisions stems from a society that purports to be meritocratic but in which equity has never been achieved. More important than investigating the percentage of students with a Williams legacy might be determining how many Williams students have a legacy to another top-50 institution. The connections, wealth, and insight gained from having a parent who attended any other elite institution are similarly influential to admissions at Williams. Viewing legacy privilege as legacy to Williams alone is too narrow; whether an applicant has a legacy to Williams, UPenn, or Swarthmore, they likely have an upper hand due to increased wealth and connections. And wealth alone — whether it stems from a parent’s elite pedigree or not — also allows for connections and opportunities for children.

It has become more commonly acknowledged that standardized tests are indicators of wealth rather than talent, due to excessive preparation with expensive tutors and the stratification of education based on wealth. However, even if standardized tests lose their relevance, private preparatory schools, private college counselors, niche sports, and academically prestigious extracurriculars all provide opportunities that put wealthy students at an extreme advantage in admissions decisions. Private preparatory schools have relationships with major institutions, allow for more personal recommendation letters, and offer more advanced course loads than many other secondary schools. Having parents with “impressive” jobs allows for more “impressive” internship opportunities through networking. Private college counselors and parents with advanced degrees can help considerably on essays and resumes, not to mention the substantial disparity in writing curricula across schools. Wealth creates a privilege that permeates far beyond legacy preference in the fight to gain admission to institutions like Williams. It’s a problem no single solution will fix.

Given the role of privilege in admissions, we should question whether admissions should function based on supposed indicators of merit or on indicators of potential. How does an institution best choose students who will thrive from the opportunities and challenges provided in college? Part of the issue with privilege in admissions is the invisibility, to elite colleges, of many suitable candidates from underprivileged backgrounds. Although many admissions offices claim to judge candidates within their context, contextualization is not enough to level out inequity built into the metrics themselves. Reducing inequity in admissions would require a complete restructuring of our understanding of the ideal college student. The first priority of admissions currently is academic excellence, while the second is curating a community of students with unique backgrounds and interests. Until these priorities are inverted, privilege — which is engrained in academic achievement — will always be the highest contributing factor in admissions.

What would it mean for higher education to switch these priorities? It would certainly reduce the high concentrations of students from wealthy backgrounds and preparatory schools. But could the budget balance without as many families who can pay $80,000 a year? While admission to Williams is currently need-blind, could it maintain this important position if admission priorities shifted away from admitting predominantly wealthy students? Could the College operate if every student was on financial aid? If students are no longer selected based on metrics favoring privileged students, perhaps the wealthy applicants would still need priority for their ability to cover institutional expenses alone. All of these questions warrant further exploration. One thing is apparent: The problem of inequity in admissions extends far beyond legacy preference. Despite radical changes some schools have made, such as the removal of standardized testing requirements and of legacy preferences, wealth inequality will remain ingrained in higher education.

Shaye Martin ’25 is from New York, N.Y