Legacy-based admission preferences

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Legacy-based admission preferences are policies that favor or advantage school applicants who belong to a group with a significant role in the shaping of an educational institution’s culture or history. Legacy status might be established based on one’s family (for example, if an applicant’s parents were elite scholars, standout athletes or generous donors), or status as a member of a group based on their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, geographic residence or income level. The ultimate form of an admission preference for a legacy applicant could be a minimum admitted quota, lower minimum admission requirements, application “legacy points,” or a policy of choosing a candidate with a legacy status over a candidate without legacy status when the applicants are generally equally qualified. Due to the discriminatory nature of legacy-based admission preferences, they must often be designed within the boundaries of jurisdictional law.




Jonathan Alderman is the son of a former alumnus and significant university donor, Bartholomew Alderman, who provided the primary funding for the construction of Elegant University's library. Jonathan's secondary school grades are below average for most attendees of Elegant University, but the school decides to admit Jonathan anyway due to the significant impact of Bartholomew's generous donations and the valuable impact future donations from Bartholomew (which are more likely to continue if his child is accepted) are expected to have on Elegant University.



Tradeoffs of implementing this policy may include:

  1. Reduction in meritocracy and lower average academic abilities of students
  2. Potential to discourage non-legacy applicants, which may result in a less diverse student body
Compatibility Assessment

Compatibility Assessment.png

If answered yes, the following questions indicate superior conditions under which the policy is more likely to be appropriate:

  1. Does the institution have a deep connections to past donors, athletes or scholars?
  2. Does the institution also provide pathways for disadvantaged groups who might not have legacy status?
  3. Does the institution have a private mission of educating elite students as opposed to a more public mission of educating a broad cross-section of students without regards for their means?
  4. Will conferring advantages to legacy students provide the school with significant extra resources it might otherwise not receive?


Assuming that a jurisdiction has decided to adopt the policy, the following questions will need to be answered when determining how to implement this policy:

  1. What is the definition of a legacy applicant?
  2. What benefits or advantages should be conferred to a legacy applicant: alternative minimum requirements, quotas, affirmative action, or direct scoring bonuses?
  3. How will the institution ensure that an institution retains pathways for non-legacy applicants and does not run afoul of fairness and non-discrimination laws?



  • Common. Legacy-based admissions preferences are common in institutions of higher learning. However, there is typically not a formal government policy that recognizes them, and the government policy may be thought of as not explicitly prohibiting such preferences. [1]

  • Post-Secondary. Legacy admission preferences are most often applied by selective post-secondary institutions, which often face greater competition for students and among students than do lower-level education institutions, for which enrollment tends to be more strongly associated with proximity of residence and from which donations tend to represent a greater share of organizational revenue.






  • Advocates - Educational Equity. Assumption: legacy-based admission preferences exacerbates historically disadvantaged groups and widens existing inequities.




  • The Impact of Legacy Status on Undergraduate Admissions at Elite Colleges and Universities. Hurwitz, Michael. Economics of Education Review Volume 30, Issue 3, June 2011, Pages 480–492. A study of the impact of legacy status on admissions decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities. Results estimate that the odds of admission are multiplied by a factor 3.13 due to legacy status, though the level of the advantage is significantly influenced by the nature of the familial ties between the applicant and the college, the selectivity of the college, and the applicant's academic strength.


  1. Lewin, Tamar. "Study Finds Family Connections Give Big Advantage in College Admissions." The New York Times, January 8, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/education/09legacies.html.
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