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The real reason elite schools cling to legacy admissions

Recently, Wesleyan University announced it would end its practice of legacy admissions. Since the Supreme Court’s recent ruling prohibiting race-conscious college admissions policies, the practice of giving an admissions advantage to alumni relatives has also come under scrutiny.

Although many correctly see legacy admissions as a mechanism for elite schools to cultivate wealthy donor families over generations, this analysis misses the bigger point. Having spent a decade as a student at three Ivy League schools, I’ve learned that legacy admissions are less about fundraising and more about protecting the central promise of elite education more broadly.

In fact, legacy admission isn’t just a non-merit-based advantage — it is the mechanism by which elite schools shield themselves from having to demonstrate their own merit.  

The first time I applied to Harvard Law School, I was waitlisted, then rejected. My mother had attended the law school three decades earlier. Growing up a public school kid from the suburbs, I always thought it was the coolest thing that President Barack Obama had been in her section first-year.

My grandparents had immigrated from India, and the idea that their daughter could have even been in the same room as a future president of the United States served as irrefutable proof to my younger self that, in America, truly anything was possible.

What did it say, then, that one generation later, I would accomplish less with more? Certainly, my parents had been able to afford opportunities for me that my grandparents wouldn’t have even known existed when they arrived.

Elite education relies on the premise that you will succeed if you are exceptional and lucky enough to attend. In America — at least until the turn of the millennium — success was always couched as part of a loosely defined “American Dream,” whereby each generation was better off because of the hard-fought accomplishments and sacrifices of the one before.

The value proposition is that elite schools actually produce these better outcomes. In recent decades, top schools have been marketed so well that, tangible results aside, they themselves have become a badge of success. One need look no further than the recent Varsity Blues scandal, in which celebrity parents essentially bought their children admission to competitive schools. We are in the era of conspicuous consumption of prestigious education.  

If Harvard is the best and really produces the best graduates, then surely those graduates’ children are also the best. Logically, then, since their children are the best, they must also be good enough to attend the best schools.

Of course, in reality, schools have limited control over the lifetime success of their graduates. On an individual level, life can turn upside down for anyone. But systemically, by many measures, my generation is the first in history to be worse off than its predecessor. Even attending an elite school cannot protect you from a rigged economy or the AI-revolution.  

Yet, because elite education itself has become an externally validating metric of success, legacy admissions allow schools to inflate the success of their own alumni, at least on the one metric of success they entirely control. Suddenly, the proof that Harvard produces successful graduates whose children are also successful is that the children of Harvard graduates succeed by getting into Harvard — an outcome that the school itself manufactures through the use of legacy admissions.

In 2023, the premise of higher education is under attack. Returns to higher education are no longer taken as a given. Some who attend community college are out-earning peers from expensive elite programs. As Americans seek more immediate and direct economic outcomes from their post-high school education, trade schools are also becoming increasingly popular.

The relevance of the Ivy League-plus cohort of top schools is waning.

No doubt, legacy admissions offer elite colleges an advantage in soliciting donors. However, the reason fancy liberal arts schools are slow to move on from the objectively unfair practice is that they don’t have confidence in what they are selling. That may be the most alarming takeaway of all. 

Kaivan Shroff is a senior advisor for the Institute For Education and a public interest attorney.

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