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Legacy admits, affirmative action and college rankings: NOT All Quiet on the Admissions Front

By Lee Bolman

With the odds of admission steeper than ever, should legacy applicants still get an edge? Should Yale still consider race in admissions decisions? Will race and legacy status both disappear in the wake of a Supreme Court decision next year? Should Yale continue to participate in the US News annual college rankings when other schools may be gaming the numbers?  All these questions have been in the news recently.

A “monumental effort” (in the words of admissions director Margit Dahl) enabled Yale’s admissions staff to wade through a record 50,015 applications and whittle the numbers down to 2,234 admits for the class of 2026.   The acceptance rate of 4.5% was Yale’s lowest ever.  Yale had been enrolling close to 70% of admitted students before the pandemic introduced turbulence into the admissions process, so it’s likely that some 1550 new first-year students will arrive in New Haven next month.

Meanwhile, multiple controversies swirl around Yale and other elite schools.  An article in the New York Times used Yale as its lead example in an article questioning legacy admissions:

“[E]ven as Yale promotes the diversity of its first-year students, the college has clung to an admissions tradition — legacy preferences — that mostly benefits students who are white, wealthy and well-connected. Of the incoming students, 14 percent were the offspring of a Yale graduate.” (Stephanie Saul, “Elite Colleges’ Quiet Fight to Favor Alumni Children,” July 13, 2022)

The Times article linked the controversy over legacy admissions to a battle over affirmative action that will be argued in the Supreme Court this Fall:

“If the court ends or rolls back the widely used practice of considering race in selecting students, as many experts expect, the ruling could prompt a reconsideration of legacy applicants. “If the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action, legacy preferences will not be long for this world,” said Justin Driver, a professor at Yale Law School.”  (ibid.)

Still another admissions controversy — the usefulness of college rankings — became front page news last month when US News & World Report announced that it was dropping Columbia University from its ranking of national universities because it couldn’t verify Columbia’s data. US News normally takes an institution’s data at face value, but a Columbia math professor had published a critique claiming that his school was providing misleading or inaccurate data.  Columbia was in a 3-way tie for 2d place with Harvard and MIT, behind Princeton at #1.  Yale was at #5 but should now move up a notch. Since US News does not independently verify the data that colleges provide, it’s hard to know how much fudge goes into the numbers.  Many admissions officer and other critics believe the rankings are misleading and harmful, but they’re hard to ignore because applicants give them so much credence.

All these debates will go on.  Add a comment to share your own views.

8 comments to Legacy admits, affirmative action and college rankings: NOT All Quiet on the Admissions Front

  • William Stork

    A super article, Lee! I was particularly drawn to the section on US News & World Report. As a school person I have often been at odds in counseling students who rely too heavily on its rankings, even after I point out to them that the magazine does not weigh the importance of the same statistics from year to year. To my my mind those considerations should be consistent. But I am equally aware that after US News ceased weekly publication in 2010 it needed to rely heavily on its annual sales of Best Colleges (even though they equally share in the profits from their online “College Compass” that uses the same data). But unless the rankings change yearly, there is no New news. I was further surprised that US News does not independently confirm the data submitted to them. They certainly have the resources. As you report, it certainly is an open invitation for a college to game their data submissions.

  • Larry Price

    Justin Driver, a professor at the Yale Law School, is quoted as saying: “If the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action, legacy preferences will not be long for this world.”

    That seems a very odd position to take, particularly for a professor of law. If the admissions office favors blacks and disfavors Asians, that is blatant racial discrimination. Although favoring legacies may have the incidental effect of favoring the offspring of “white, wealthy and well connected” alumni, it is not racial discrimination. There is no reason why the demise of racial discrimination should mean the end of legacy preferences.

    Except for one thing. Most current faculty members are very unhappy with legacy preferences. The end of racial discrimination would be a handy excuse to rid themselves of their favorite bete noire.

  • Lee Bolman

    Thanks to Bill and Larry for their comments. On the issue of college rankings, two alums have now sued Columbia for violating New York consumer protection laws by submitting misleading data to US News. Columbia, which was flying high in the US News rankings, will survive, but the brand is tarnished and the students who apply to the Ivies pay a lot of attention to this kind of news. The broader issue isn’t going away–if I were an admissions officer who’d been massaging the rankings data, I’d be nervous right now.

    The debate over legacy admissions is going to continue as well. The broad question goes to what values Yale is seeking to express when it constructs a freshman class. Reproduce the existing structure of class and wealth, as some critics insist? Justin Fox reflects a view that if the university is no longer allowed to give a tip to applicants of color, it gets harder to defend giving a tip to members of a group that is predominately wealthy and white. I think all the elite universities would abandon legacy admits if they were sure that it wouldn’t cost them alumni support and money. But they’re not sure, so it’s a dilemma.

  • Bill Weber

    One can take the legacy issue to the extreme where Yale would actually discriminate against candidates who are “legacies” and therefore would only be eligible for admission if they were absolutely outstanding in all respects and able to pay the full shot of the cost to attend.

    On another matter, as a member of the alumni schools committee for 49 years, I discovered the concept of need blind admissions was not totally true and some of my admits were capable of paying the full shot. Whether they were actually better candidates than the others I interviewed who were not admitted, but needed financial assistance is not clear to me.

    The finances of running Yale today demands some balance of admissions and financial aid.

  • Lee Bolman

    I think it will always be to Yale’s advantage to have legacies in the class, so there’s very little danger of discriminating against them. Even without a legacy tip, they might still end up being a disproportionate share of the class because many of them are very strong applicants. Development admits, who get an edge because their family is willing to donate a building or an art collection, may be weaker than the average admit, but that’s less true of legacies.

    On Bill’s 2d point, it’s hard to know if Yale is fudging on need-blind because admissions decisions are opaque even for ASC members. This year, Yale rejected more than 95% of 50,015 applicants. As an alumni interviewer you may see the results for a handful and puzzle over why a very impressive candidate was turned down while some other candidate was accepted. But how much can you know when you can’t see all the other very talented applicants with whom your interviewees were competing, and you weren’t present as admissions officers struggled to make difficult and subtle decisions.

  • Bill Weber

    Lee, you are correct in your comments on the decision process of which we do not have all the details. My experiences were prior to the huge influx of applicants and my contact at the adm. dept was most helpful in discussing each candidate I asked him about; in fact, he was able to discuss each one in enough detail to convince me the decisions were carefully considered in each case.

    I once pushed hard for Mongolian girl who had grown up in a yurt before coming to the USA and, whilst I was not privy to other considerations in her case, she was rejected and I was told there were issues beyond the value to Yale with a totally different culture on the campus. She ended up at Cornell and did not do well, so it appears the decision Yale made was correct.

    Today with so any applicants it is hard to imagine how they are dealt with in much detail beyond the data on the application. Cornell does not even conduct interviews any more and decisions seem to be on the data presented only, perhaps with some consideration on teachers’ recommendations and other high school data beyond the class standings and SAT scores.

    At each reunion the students I see are cheerful engaging individuals showing great promise for our future.

  • Charles Merlis

    In the mid 1950s, my father, Yale ’28S, came back from an admissions discussion for alumni. At that time, I believe the admissions rate was only 20-25%, which was scary to fathers of sons. The Admissions officer had several suggestions to tilt the odds. Number one was to learn the Oboe or some such neglected instrument. Diversity was desired, even then. If your family didn’t want to send you to one of the feeder prep schools (Andover, Exeter, etc.) and they lived in an urban center, then the whole Family perhaps should move to Montana as geographical diversity was an asset. That was better than being one of the myriad of high school football captains that applied. Tragically, my oldest son’s parents divorced while he was in high school and he was rejected. He ended up graduating SUMMA CUM LAUDE from Albany and survived. I now am reduced to hoping to live long enough to see a grandchild get in, but as my oldest one is only three, the odds are not that good.

  • Mark Cohan, M.D.

    I was the Alumni Schools Committee chair for probably twenty years in Broward County south Florida. It was exciting but problematic with many decisions inexplicable to me.
    But one episode stands out: a candidate I felt was very qualified, even worthy was early action. And rejected. I was more depressed than she was.
    With her permission, I sent a copy of my Yale interview form to Admissions Dean Fox at Columbia. She thrived at Columbia, and graduated cum laud.
    I felt vindicated!