The Pragmatic Case for Ending Legacy Admissions, Now

Harvard Admissions Office
Marina Qu

This year will be the first application cycle to Harvard since the fall of affirmative action.

The University has yet to publicly propose a comprehensive plan to keep diversity alive in our incoming classes. And yet, legacy admissions will still be practiced this year.

This seems profoundly unfair to us — a sentiment shared by a civil rights complaint filed this summer. The complaint argues that Harvard’s consideration of legacy and donor status predominantly benefits white applicants, violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rather than reiterate the keen inequity at the core of legacy admissions (a well-hashed argument in our editorial pages) or wade into the 31 pages of the complaint, we hope to provide a practical explanation for why University President Claudine Gay should direct her administration to abolish legacy admissions, right now.

First, a principal argument in favor of legacy admissions appears to be the incentives of alumni with children to donate. Yet Harvard’s most prominent megadonors — like the notorious Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 — seem happy to cart truckloads of money to our University’s doorstep, at any stage of their children’s college application processes. And of course, ending legacy preference doesn’t need to mean ending megadonor preference.


Empirically, there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preferences and alumni giving. This study is verified just by looking around us in Massachusetts: MIT, which has branded itself as the anti-legacy institution for years, still rakes in tens of millions of dollars in donations every year; and at Amherst College, which scrapped legacy admissions a couple years ago, administrators haven’t seen much effect on donations either.

We won’t lose out on alumni donations if Harvard does away with legacy admissions. But we might convert some first-time donors who emphatically agree with ending legacy preference.

Which brings us to our second point: The trend away from legacy admissions is unmistakable. This trajectory is visible not only in fellow institutions — from MIT’s and CalTech’s longtime stances, to Amherst College’s and Wesleyan University’s more recent adoptions — but also in the courts of public opinion, with 75 percent of Americans last year believing that legacy preferences should not be considered in college admissions.

It’s still early days; Harvard can still brand itself as a leader of this movement and declare a strong moral and political stance. But if the administration waits too long, the University will instead appear as if desperately trying to keep up with a public image already established by peer institutions.

Third and finally, not only the University’s reputation but Gay’s personal legacy is at stake. Ending legacy preferences will not be an easy task; she may have to expend significant political capital within her administration or choose to forgo the support of some prominent Harvard affiliates.

But weighed against the school’s commitment to diverse and equitable admissions, especially in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s curtailment of affirmative action, these consequences pale in comparison.

History will look favorably upon Gay for ending legacy admissions. This one bold move could set the tone for a Gay administration defined by pragmatism and action, trusted to steer us skillfully and thoughtfully through all sorts of educational challenges in the years to come.

​​This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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