Legacy policies became widespread in the 1920s. At that time, Ivy League schools were desperate to preserve their status as bastions of the elite. As students from diverse non-elitist backgrounds increasingly accessed undergraduate education, Harvard and other elite schools decided to keep the number of what they saw as “social undesirables” to a minimum.
Therefore, attempting to preserve their exclusionary traditions, the admissions officers preferred the children of alumni. For example, nearly a third of Yale students were sons of Yale graduates by the 1930s (female undergraduates only started to be admitted in 1968).
Princeton University made its favoritism towards legacies even more explicit and clear. The university’s 1958 brochure asserted, “No matter how many other boys apply, the Princeton son is urged on this one question: can he be expected to graduate? If so, he’s admitted.”
Nowadays, many top-notch universities persist with their legacy policies, granting considerable advantage to the so-called “legacy students.” For example, 36% of Harvard’s class of 2022 consisted of students having a relative who previously attended the university. (1) Similarly, Princeton and Brown report admitting more than 30% of legacy students.
The presidents of Ivy League universities and other private elite schools have defended such practices as a necessary evil. They have argued that the boost in enrollment improves the education quality and benefits those from less privileged backgrounds.
Contrary to their popular portrayals in the universities’ marketing materials, selective admissions in the US contain significant pitfalls, such as rampant nepotism.
Grace Han’s article for The New York Times might help learn further about this pervasive practice. (2)