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Legacy Admission, Social Hierarchies, and Religious Stratification are all connected according to Higher Education Researchers


College Admission Office
College Admission Office

Legacy admission policy has been in effect for centuries. Critics in higher education consistently argue for a change, with reignited scrutiny after the SCOTUS recent decision on race-conscious affirmative action. Prior to the decision, discussion was consistently pointing toward an inequitable process. Gutiérrez and Unzueta conducted a study in 2013 testing hypotheses concerning whether social dominance orientation reflects the desire to protect in-group interest versus maintaining a status hierarchy. They examined attitudes toward selection policies concerning hierarchy-enhancing (legacy admission policy) and hierarchy-attenuating (affirmative action policy). They found that people motivated to preserve status hierarchies support policies such as legacy admission, that reinforce racial inequality by benefitting the dominant racial group and in opposition to affirmative action policies which benefit minority groups.


Ronald J. Daniels from the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, "Legacy preference is immobility written as policy, preserving for children the same advantages enjoyed by their parents. It embodies inherited privilege in higher education in stark and indefensible terms and has compromised college and university admissions for decades." Empirical studies support that legacy admission policies have a historical origin of social stratification and discrimination amongst college applicants. Additionally, the original intent was motivated by religious discrimination, which snowballed into other specifications of creating social hierarchies separated by religious demographic dominance.


"the original intent was motivated by religious discrimination, which snowballed into other specifications of creating social hierarchies separated by religious demographic dominance."

 The Origins of Legacy Admission is a 2011 study conducted from a sociological perspective, arguing that legacy admission policies have been an essential element in the persistence of stratification in general and religious stratification more specifically. Dating back to America's first century, the Protestant Establishment created legacy admission policies in response to the increased number of Jewish and Catholic immigrants coming to America during the colonial period. As Black Americans were enslaved during this period, racial stratification had not yet been established as a social construct.


Thus, the policies of the present-day stem from historical practices of religious discrimination. Coe and Davidson’s study confirmed legacy admission was first introduced at Ivy League Schools in the northeast region during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and began to appear when applications from Jewish and Catholic students were increasing. The legacy admission policy led to other discriminatory mechanisms used today, such as test scores and letters of recommendation—each criterion further stratified admittance to highly selective institutions in the past and present.


"The legacy admission policy led to other discriminatory mechanisms used today, such as test scores and letters of recommendation—each criterion further stratified admittance to highly selective institutions in the past and present."

While it is clear from most studies that legacy admission policies from past to present negatively impact underrepresented students, Howell and Turner’s study suggested the legacy applicant pool is shifting, which was conducted back in 2004. Surely, demographics have continued to shift since then, but have they continued to improve in the number of applicants receiving admission as a legacy from underrepresented backgrounds? The researchers note that although legacy admission policies benefit white and wealthy students systemically, the disproportioned applicant pool is eroding quickly as more underrepresented student demographics seek bachelor's degrees.


Does the current applicant pool reflect more underrepresented students in comparison to 2004? Is this a question of admittance or should research go a step further in discussing the yield rates of students offered legacy admission? As we all know, the strategic enrollment management funnel has levels, so where is the gap specifically? Separately, the U.S Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights cited in its conclusion of a 2-year investigation of Harvard's Admission Policies that "although Harvard's legacy policies disproportionately benefit white applicants, the school had legitimate institutional goals that were accomplished through legacy admission". It is clear, legacy admission disproportionately advantages the white and similarly the wealthy. These arguments lead to further scrutiny concerning the timetable of proportional legacy admission applicant pools becoming realized.


"The researchers note that although legacy admission policies benefit white students systemically, the disproportioned applicant pool is eroding quickly as more underrepresented students seek bachelor's degrees."

Should Legacy Admission be banned just as race-conscious affirmative action? Black women have been prominent in higher education degree attainment in the last two decades alone. Legacy admission is available to their future children now and it can only increase from here if advocacy for underrepresented enrollment continues in college admissions. Should the argument be geared toward banning the practice or providing equality in the practice? Would critics still despise the practice if it were equally distributed? These are questions I ponder and consider. I would like to hear other thoughts as well.

 

Rebuttals are always welcome!

 

Thank you for reading and sharing this article.

Jade M. Felder

@felderofficial - X

 

 

Reading Recommendations:

 

Coe, D. L., & Davidson, J. D. (2011). The origins of legacy admissions: A sociological

explanation. Review of Religious Research, 233-247.

 

Gutiérrez, A. S., & Unzueta, M. M. (2013). Are admissions decisions based on family ties fairer

than those that consider race? Social dominance orientation and attitudes toward legacy

vs. affirmative action policies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 554-558.

 

Howell, C., & Turner, S. E. (2004). Legacies in black and white: The racial composition of the

legacy pool. Research in higher education, 45(4), 325-351.

 

Hurwitz, M. (2011). The impact of legacy status on undergraduate admissions at elite colleges

and universities. Economics of Education Review30(3), 480-492.

 

 

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