Legacy Admissions at Colleges

Published September 2022

NOTE: Since this was published, in July 2023 a federal civil rights complaint to the Education Department’s office of Civil of Rights was submitted regarding Harvard College’s use of legacy admissions. It was filed in Boston by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of the African Community Economic Development of New England, the Greater Boston Latino Network and the Chica Project. The United States Department of Education is now investigating Harvard University’s legacy process.

Legacy admissions can be a major factor in whether a student is accepted to college. At many top colleges, legacy admissions can make up a significant percentage of the incoming freshman class. It does provide an advantage to the children and grandchildren of alumni (and sometimes siblings and other relatives), who often already have resources that make it easier to be admitted to a top college. This practice started in the 1920s by universities, and many colleges still employ this as part of their admissions office strategy today.

Legacy admissions greatly impacts the acceptance rates of students at many top colleges. Between 2014 and 2019, the acceptance rate of legacies was 33 percent at Harvard while its overall acceptance rate was only 6 percent. At Penn for the Class of 2022, 25 percent of admitted students in the early Decision pool were legacies, although they only represented 16 percent of the pool in that round.

Arguments against this policy include that it gives students a major advantage who already have access to elite institutions, and it reduces the number of slots for students who are first generation or under-represented in the applicant pool.

The vast majority of colleges consider legacy admissions as a factor when a student applies. Which schools do not consider legacy admissions as a factor to increase the odds of admissions?

This list is not exhaustive but cites some top examples of colleges that do not practice legacy admissions (updated as of March 2024 to reflect that Virginia has banned legacy admissions at their public colleges and universities):

Amherst College

California Institute of Technology

Carleton College

College of William & Mary

Cooper Union

George Mason University

James Madison University

Johns Hopkins University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Occidental College

Pomona College

Texas A&M University

University of California

University of Colorado

University of Georgia

University of Minnesota Twin Cities

University of Texas

University of Virginia

University of Washington

Virginia Commonwealth University

Virginia Tech

Wesleyan University

Only a very small number of colleges have done away with this practice of legacy admissions. The United States has a confusing process for accepting students to universities and includes many factors in its decisions besides test scores and grades, unlike most other countries that mainly rely on statistics. American admissions offices often lack transparency with how they select their class; they have their own institutional needs that they wish to fulfill. They are looking to round out their class with a variety of students, including first generation, under-represented minority groups, athletes, alumni and faculty children, as well as paying attention to particular subject interest and geographic origin. Legacy admissions is one factor that most likely will be considered when applying to an American college and could make a difference in whether an applicant is admitted.

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