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By: Emma Serrano, Ethics and Policy Intern

Following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions via the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC rulings, some have called for a reassessment of legacy admissions because the policy is similarly unmeritocratic.[1]

At present, nearly 50% of four-year colleges and 80% of highly selective colleges still use legacy admissions.[2] However, these policies have not gone uncontested.

When UC Berkeley, UCLA, Texas A&M, and the University of Georgia ended race-conscious admissions, they also ended legacy preference. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education recently launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard’s legacy admissions practice.[3] State legislatures are also making their presence heard. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed a law banning legacy admissions in its state institutions, and Connecticut and New York are likely to follow.

However, some colleges, notably private and elite institutions, seem wary of making the leap. With legacy admissions making a bid for the next higher education admissions crisis, let’s look at what they are and the ethics surrounding how colleges handle them.

Contextualizing Legacy Admissions

“Legacy admissions” refers to the practice of allocating special preference or consideration for the relatives of alumni during college admissions. The practice originated in the early 1920s when Ivy League colleges implemented it as one of many strategies to limit the number of Jewish immigrants admitted to historically Protestant institutions.[4]

While modern-day legacy policies are not intentionally designed to exclude based on racial, ethnic, or religious identity, legacy admissions slow populational demographic change in student bodies by causing “the composition of enrollment at a college to change less quickly than the composition of otherwise qualified applicants.”[5]

Let’s explore what this means in practice. Take John Doe, a high school senior enrolling in Harvard University in the fall. Both of John’s parents attended Harvard, and John is thrilled to join the average 15 to 30% of Harvard’s incoming class that reports legacy status.[6] Sure, I’m happy for John, but I can’t help but wonder whether John’s advantage was fair. Did John earn his way into Harvard based on his aptitude? Or was he unfairly admitted because of his parent’s legacy status?

We will never know for sure, but John Casey, founder and president of Educational Advocates College Consulting, explains that legacy candidates must be “somewhat in the ballpark” of an institution’s GPA, standardized test scores, and extracurricular distributions to be admitted.[7] Therefore, reporting legacy status does not guarantee admission but instead operates as an additional boost to a student’s application.

This extra boost promotes systemic inequity because the issue is also intimately tied to entrenched racial disparities in the United States. First-generation students are automatically left behind by legacy practices, many of whom are racial or ethnic minorities. According to a legal complaint issued against Harvard, nearly 70% of all legacy admits are white — a group that is almost six times more likely to gain admission.[8] Applicants whose relatives are donors (also a majority-white demographic) are seven times more likely to gain admission.

Wealthy, majority-white students already experience several additional advantages, including access to private admissions counselors, expensive summer programs, and networking benefits. Combined with legacy status, these benefits are likely to result in what some critics contend creates too much of a cumulative advantage. Especially when considering that approximately 15-30% of top institutions are made up of legacy candidates, some assert that the college admissions process should be blind to family heritage.

On a base level, the argument against legacy admissions is intuitive. Even if they do not guarantee admission, legacy preferences are definitively unmeritocratic and statistically disadvantage minority and first-generation students. Legacy preference is also largely unpopular; a 2022 Pew Research Center study found that 75% of Americans don’t believe colleges should consider legacy status.[5] What’s holding colleges back?

The Money Piece

The simple answer is that colleges claim they financially benefit, citing increases in alumni donations as a result of legacy admissions.

The research here is mixed. One case study examined an unnamed, private, elite college in the Northeast and found that after graduation, legacies and their parents donate more than non-legacies.[9] Another analysis reveals that the mere possibility of increasing chances of admission for their child motivates alumni parents to donate to their alma mater.[10] In this way, legacy preference policies create a perception of reciprocity that motivates alumni to donate on behalf of their children, a dynamic that could not exist without legacy preference.

By contrast, another study finds no statistically significant evidence that legacy preferences impact total alumni giving among top universities.[11] However, this study did not control for wealth, and a subsequent analysis found that considering familial wealth of alumni as a factor explains 70% of the variation in alumni giving. This finding begs the question of whether wealth, rather than legacy status, drives higher donation rates. Wealth and legacy status may go hand in hand as legacy students are more likely to come from a wealthy home, afford tuition, require less financial aid, and make more frequent donations.[12] In an age when most colleges have pledged their commitment to need-blind admissions, these results raise the separate (but related) question of whether elite schools discriminate based on socioeconomic status.

More research is needed to tease out the exact impact of legacy preference on alumni donations, independent of wealth, race, ethnicity, and other factors. However, what remains evident is that when confronted with the prospect of eliminating legacy preference, colleges are wary of the shift and anticipate losing out on funding.

What Do Ethics Tell Us?

We’ve analyzed the context surrounding the legacy admissions debate. What do classical ethical philosophies say on the topic? Two perspectives, Deontology and Utilitarianism, shed light on the ethical implications of legacy preference.

Deontology is a term first coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant conceived of ethics as referring to universal moral obligations.[13] Deontologists see humans as having equal value and claims to autonomy, dignity, and respect. The deontological perspective evaluates policy by its nature, whether it is inherently right or wrong, not by its consequences.

By contrast, Utilitarianism conceives of outcomes as the ultimate ethical determinant.[14] Also known as consequentialism, Utilitarianism justifies policy based on whether it cultivates the greatest welfare for the most people.

To evaluate how Deontology and Utilitarianism might view legacy admissions, let’s go back to our good friend John Doe, the high school senior with a legacy preference who was recently accepted into Harvard University.

The deontologist might worry about John’s admission because his legacy status gives him an unfair advantage over non-legacy students. Violating the general principle that humans have equal intrinsic value, the “boost” conferred by legacy preference leads to unequal treatment of students by John’s university’s admissions council. A deontologist might also argue that legacy preference undermines autonomy. If John’s admissions outcome is determined, at least in part, by his parents’ alumni status, it diminishes John’s ability, and that of non-legacy applicants, to let their accomplishments and ambitions shape their future. Regardless of whether John would have been accepted without his legacy status, the deontologist would advocate for removing legacy consideration during the admissions cycle.

Conversely, the utilitarian perspective focuses solely on the societal outcomes of John’s admission. Let’s say John became a world-renowned scientist and created a life-saving vaccine upon graduating from Harvard. Because John’s education leads to significant contributions to society, Utilitarianism would justify his admission despite the initial unfair advantage provided by legacy preference. However, if John fails to make substantial contributions, Utilitarianism might question his admission based on its unsatisfactory outcome.

It’s clear that Deontology will consistently reject legacy admissions because they provide an unmeritocratic advantage to certain students over others. By contrast, we’ve observed that Utilitarianism can take contradictory positions despite its singular emphasis on outcomes, hinging on whether it anticipates a positive or negative result. Let’s see more about this dynamic by taking John out of the equation and looking at legacy admissions more generally.

Utilitarianism’s outcome-centric stance is riddled with tradeoffs. On the one hand, Utilitarianism might support legacy admissions because it increases alumni funding to institutions, therefore strengthening the overall welfare of higher education and enhancing its contribution to society. On the other hand, Utilitarianism also confronts the reality that legacy preference exacerbates financial and racial disparities by favoring those who are already privileged, thus creating more unequal and unjust outcomes.

One potential solution highlights the possibility of redirecting legacy funds towards scholarships or programs aimed at minority and low-income students in an effort to mitigate existing disparities. However, we saw above that conclusions surrounding the relationship between legacy preference and alumni donations were unclear. How much revenue do legacy admissions actually generate, and what fraction can we expect to be allocated to minority programs?

These tradeoffs raise what I’d call the enough question. Is the chance for increased donations directed at marginalized communities enough to justify maintaining a practice that simultaneously roots them out from college admissions? Thinking back on Deontology’s perspective, are the potential societal benefits of legacy preference enough to override the reality that legacy preference systematically treats students unequally?

Now, I trust my readers to evaluate the tradeoffs and come to their own conclusions on the enough question. But I’d argue that legacy admissions constitute a gamble that higher education should not bet on. Since research establishing a concrete relationship between legacy preference and university fundraising is lukewarm at best, the potential for increased revenue does not justify the legacy “pay-to-play” privilege when unequal and unjust outcomes are arguably more persistent and clearly evidenced. It’s time for higher education to reassess their admissions practices and recognize that legacy preference is a risky bet — one that threatens fairness, integrity, and merit-based admissions.

The Path Forward

The conversation surrounding legacy admissions is just heating up. At present, 53% of selective four-year colleges and 80% of highly selective colleges still consider legacy preference.[15] Admissions boards and state legislatures alike have defended and questioned the policy, and it remains unclear what the path forward will be.

However, the tradeoffs highlighted by the deontological and utilitarian lenses may offer a valuable perspective. Echoing ongoing discussions in higher education circles and centering principles of fairness and equity, higher education would do well to heed them.


  1. Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Volume No. 20–1199 U.S. (2023, June 29).
  2. Hess, F. M., & Kahlenberg, R. D. (2023, May 8). Why It’s Time for Legacy College Admissions to Go. Time.
  3. Shear, M. D., & Hartocollis, A. (2023, July 25). Education Dept. Opens Civil Rights Inquiry Into Harvard’s Legacy Admissions. The New York Times.
  4. Blakemore, E. (2023, July 28). Why do colleges have legacy admissions? It started as a way to keep out Jews. National Geographic.
  5. Reber, S., & Goodman, G. (2024, March 12). Who uses legacy admissions?. Brookings Institution.
  6. Meet the Class of 2027: Class Makeup and Admissions. (2023). The Harvard Crimson.
  7. LaGesse, S. (2023, July 21). Legacy Admissions: What It Is and Why Colleges Are Reconsidering It. U.S. News and World Report.
  8. Cabral, Sam. (2023, July 3). Legacy admissions: Harvard accused of favouring mostly white students. BBC.
  9. Castilla, E. J., & Poskanzer, E. J. (2022, September 21). Through the Front Door: Why Do Organizations (Still) Prefer Legacy Applicants?. American Sociological Review, Volume 87, Issue 5.
  10. Meer, J., & Rosen, H. S. (2009, February). Altruism and the Child Cycle of Alumni Donations. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2009, 1:1, 258–286.
  11. Coffman, C., O’Neil, T., & Starr, B. (2010). An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Legacy Preferences on Alumni giving at top Universities. Affirmative Action for the Rich.
  12. Castilla, E. J., & Poskanzer, E. J. (2022, September 21). Through the Front Door: Why Do Organizations (Still) Prefer Legacy Applicants?. American Sociological Review, Volume 87, Issue 5.
  13. Tseng, P., & Wang, Y. (2021, August 18). Deontological or Utilitarian? An Eternal Ethical Dilemma in Outbreak. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
  14. Tseng, P., & Wang, Y. (2021, August 18). Deontological or Utilitarian? An Eternal Ethical Dilemma in Outbreak. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
  15. Hess, F. M., & Kahlenberg, R. D. (2023, May 8). Why It’s Time for Legacy College Admissions to Go. Time.
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