A college’s policy of legacy admissions means that the children of graduates of the college are more likely to be accepted by the college when they apply than are other applicants with similar records. Such a policy has the biggest effect on acceptances by elite colleges, partly because they are the hardest schools to get into. Although many colleges do not reveal data on admissions rates of legacies compared to others, the limited data available indicate a large gap. For example, in 2008 Princeton admitted about 40% of all legacy applicants compared to less than 13% of other applicants. Dartmouth’s legacy acceptance rate then was more than twice that of other applicants. However, some of this difference is spurious because legacy applicants are generally better qualified since their parents are better educated and wealthier, and send their children to better schools.
As Posner indicates, legacy admission policies have been widely criticized as being unfair to non-legacy applicants who may have better records. Such a criticism has merit from a narrow perspective, but a legacy policy may in the longer run help both students and faculty. First of all, legacies may help to raise a school’s “harvest” rate; that is, the fraction of accepted applicants who decide to attend. Colleges and universities at all levels are competing against similar institutions for a limited number of qualified high school students. If different applicants look equally acceptable on the basis of their records, preference to the children or grandchildren of alumni may be warranted, even aside from financial considerations.
Acceptance rates by different applicants are a major uncertainty facing colleges as they try to achieve good entering classes. Since applicants with family links to a school are more likely to attend if admitted, that would make their admission more valuable than would the admission of equally able students without any family connections to that school. This type of reasoning implies that it would be desirable for schools to lower somewhat the admission standards for legacies since the loss to a school from admitting somewhat lower quality legacy applicants could be more than made up by higher acceptance rates from legacies. How much a school should lower its admission standards to accept legacies depends on the differences between the acceptance rates of legacies and those of other applicants, and on other factors.
Another common argument made for legacy admissions is the importance of alumni gifts to the quality of education a college offers. Private colleges and universities, and increasingly also the major public universities, rely greatly on gifts and endowments to finance their education programs. There is a strong tradition in the United States of “giving back” by alumni in the form of fnancial contributions. Alumni are by far the principle source of small to moderate gifts to colleges and universities, and they, along with private foundations, are the major source of very large gifts. Individuals who have given tens, and sometimes hundreds, of millions of dollars to institutions of higher learning almost invariably have graduated from, or at least attended, the institutions that received their large gifts.
Families that have more than one member who attended a particular institution of higher education tend to be more loyal to that institution than families with only a single graduate of that institution. Families with several graduates are more likely to attend alumni events and participate in alumni activities. In addition, a study of graduates of Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, indicates that individuals with relatives who also attended Middlebury are more likely to provide financial support. Since financial support is crucial to the effective performance of any college, greater gifts along with higher acceptance rates from legacies, would give legacies an edge in deciding on admissions policies.
How much edge to give them should depend on how much more likely they are to provide significant financial support, how much higher are their acceptance rates when admitted, and how their other achievements compare to non-legacy graduates. The case for giving preference to legacies would be greatly weakened, and could even be reversed, if they were on the whole less successful than other graduates. I do not believe that is true, and a study of Duke undergraduates indicates that legacy admits perform about as well at Duke as other students who have parents who graduated from (other) colleges.