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An Unmentionable Factor in College Admissions

In a recent posting on the comments page of last week's Friday Trends column [Will Advanced Placement Replace the SAT?] on this blog, a reader identifying herself as Crimsonwife asked a good question:

"So Mr. Mathews, please tell me- imagine that you are an admissions officer at Harvard. Without the SAT, how would YOU distinguish between student A, who's a valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA and five scores of 5 on AP exams and student B, with the exact same stats? Wouldn't YOU want to know which had the 1550 and which had the 1450?"

Here is my answer. I am repeating it because my brain informed me some days later, as it often does, that I stupidly left out an important factor in admissions. It is rarely mentioned, because it is so beyond the control of most applicants, but I think in some circumstances has more weight than either GPA, SAT or AP. Can you guess what it is?

I said: "In that situation it would not matter if the admissions officer knew that one kid had just a 1450. He would still be over the 1400 (or now 2100) mark and thus considered in the same maybe pile as the kid with the 1550. If both kids had the same stats other than the SAT, the issue would still be decided by other things--most importantly extracurriculars, how effusive teacher recommendations were, quality of essays and if their respective schools already had a lot of kids admitted to Harvard. Or, as happens a lot these days, it would be just how they felt at that moment about each of those kids when they asked the committee, cutting the class back to the target number, to say yea or nay for each kid. At that point, there is no time to discuss reasons any more. They just vote. That is why admission to such schools has become not much more rational than winning the lottery, and as I say all the time, not worth worrying about because you can get just as good an education at at least 300 other schools."

What i failed to mention was what admissions folk call the legacy factor. If student B had a 1450 SAT [counting just reading and math scores], but also had a parent or other close relative that went to Harvard, and student A, with a 1550 SAT, did not, student B would have a better chance of getting in. Princeton researchers Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung calculated that the legacy factor is worth on average 160 extra points on the 1600-point SAT. I have noticed that the students admitted to Harvard from the selective private high school my daughter attended usually have a Harvard connection. I have been privy to the give and take over applicants to some colleges, and if a student is a legacy, it is mentioned and has great weight. (Although it will not guarantee the admission of a so-so student.)

If you believe, as I do, the research showing that going to Harvard or any of the other selective colleges offers no significant advantage in life, that students of similar quality at little known colleges do just as well after graduation, then the legacy factor is not very bothersome. If you don't believe that, then it is a cause for concern. But there is absolutely no sign that the colleges who give preference to legacies, and consider it an important way to win alumni support, are going to stop doing that.

By Jay Mathews  | September 2, 2009; 2:26 PM ET
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The admissions officer who visited my high school my senior year told my guidance counselor that Harvard reserves 25% of its freshman class for legacies. She relayed this tidbit on to me as my dad is a Harvard graduate. I'm pretty sure she meant it to be reassuring, but I got turned off by the unfairness of the practice. It was one of the reasons I chose to attend a different university. Had I gone to Harvard, I never would've known if I got in on my own merits or just because of my family connection. But I know that I was accepted to the school where I was not a legacy on the strength of my own application.

I don't have a problem with legacy status being a tiebreaker between otherwise equal candidates. But reserving a certain percentage of slots for legacies- blech!

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 2, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Full disclosure here: Dean's List student (wrong dean, wrong list), summa cum lucky graduate of a generally well regarded state university.

I find hard to believe that Harvard reserves 25% of its slots for legacy admissions. I expect that the figure is much lower.

Legacy admissions are not undeserved; they are subtle acknowledgements of ties families and educational institutions have established over time.

Posted by: jbartelloni | September 4, 2009 5:53 AM | Report abuse

The legacy factor is not "unmentionable." It's frequently mentioned, very well known to any moderately sophisticated applicant or parent, and very real. It also won't go away. Good universities need (not just want) alumni contributions, and what better way to build a sense of continued connection with the university than legacy admissions and multiple generations at Picky U.? But the rest of the admissions process is rife with other factors that may seem unfair to the individual. A kid from a Washington private school is much more likely to have a parent who went to Princeton etc. But an equally talented kid from a small town in Wyoming or a barrio in the Bronx is probably more likely to be admitted in the name of diversity, despite the legacy factor. Not a process where it's possible to make perfectly bloodless choices based on SAT scores and summer internships. Thank goodness.

Posted by: WilliamIverson | September 4, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. I agree that perhaps the value of legacy status to the level of education of a student applying to a school like Harvard is dubious. But consider it from Harvard's point of view. Aside from being faithful to their alumni, which I'm sure is a factor just as in any elite organization, that student will enjoy certain advantages that might contribute to his or her sucess at the school that will not come across in a standard application. For instance, parental support and preparedness of the student for the specific rigors of the school will likely be higher. The student will be more likely to posess the networking advatages of affluent parents that will enable them to pursue unique opportunities, bringing a measure of prestige to the school. And lastly, but certainly not least, the parents are likely to have more money, leading to a better assurance of timely payent of tuition and possible future donations for "keeping it in the family". Now, are all of these factors fair to those students who want to break the mold and deserve their chance to obtain an elite education with the big name to catch the eye of employers? Perhaps not. But the elite schools did not get the way they are by looking only at the academic marks earned by applicants or their ever-important extra-curriculars.

Posted by: Benjamin9 | September 4, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Here's the URL of that Princeton study Jay referred to (and Jay, thirty lashes with the proverbial wet noodle for not linking to this your self!):

Posted by: pjwhittle | September 4, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

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