legacy [ˈlɛ.gə.siː] n. something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past. From Old French legatie “legate’s office,” from Medieval Latin legatia, from Latin legatus “ambassador, envoy”.
So what does this definition mean to us if we’re talking about college?
In admissions terminology, the “something received from the past” is a boost in admissions preference if your relatives attended the institution you’re applying to. It’s difficult to tell where the line is drawn when it comes to what “counts” as legacy. Having a parent who went to the college is the most common definition, but usually it only counts if the parent was an undergraduate there. Some colleges also ask if your siblings attend their institution and may factor that into admissions decisions. Relatives beyond the nuclear family, however, usually don’t count for a legacy boost. Grandparents just might fit into this category, but you definitely don’t want to include in your essay that your second cousin once removed attended the university 70 years ago. Don’t push it.
Legacy admission is most often used at private colleges and universities, since they rely more on donations than public universities do. The University of Notre Dame‘s student body, for example, is almost a quarter legacy students. There are several reasons why potential donations factor into college admissions:
- If the institution rejects a legacy student, this can lead to their family ceasing or decreasing their financial support of the college.
- If multiple family members attend a college, this can amplify the donations that the institution receives from the family overall.
That said, public universities still pay attention to legacy status. In general, children of alumni are more than twice as likely to be admitted to colleges and universities in the U.S. than are applicants whose parents attended college elsewhere or didn’t attend college.
While most colleges claim that that they only give a slight preference to legacy students, the data doesn’t bear this out. According to The Economist, Harvard University admitted 40 percent of legacy applicants in 2004, but only 11 percent of regular applicants. This can be seen as highly discriminatory, since most applicants who are the children of Harvard graduates are probably among the more advantaged of their cohort — it doesn’t seem ethical to give them yet another leg up. Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, points out, however, that legacies are raised to be proud of their parents’ almae matres. They contribute to school spirit in a way that regular students cannot.
In any case, while this system is in place, you will be using it to your advantage if you’re interested in applying to the college that one of your parents or siblings went to, and if that college considers legacy as part of its admissions process. Whether you actually agree with the legacy admissions structure is another matter.
Want to know more?
“Legacy Admission Preferences & Giving: Is There a Connection?” — Marts & Lundy Counsel
“The curse of nepotism” — Lexington, The Economist
“Should Colleges Consider Legacies in the Admissions Process?” — The Wall Street Journal