Legacy debate peaks elsewhere; NU says it looks more at merit

Shelly Banjo

To Weinberg sophomore Sarah Avery, Northwestern has been a part of her life since childhood — from memorabilia on her walls to campus visits on weekends.

“NU was always a name in our house,” said Avery, whose father graduated from NU in 1977 and whose sister is in the class of 2005.

According to statistics from the Office of Undergraduate Admission, 24 percent of students in the class of 2007 were legacy admissions. Although schools define “legacy” differently, at NU it means any relative of an alumni.

But Director of Undergraduate Admission Keith Todd said legacy status does not automatically guarantee admission. The majority of legacy applicants are very strong on their own, he said, and their legacy status simply adds more weight to the admission decision.

“There is no direct link between the development office and admissions,” Todd said. “There is some advantage to legacy applicants, but it doesn’t make the difference.”

Legacy admissions are important to the university, Todd said, because they help maintain strong ties to families. They also are crucial to NU’s endowment fund. As of August 2003, alumni contributed $52.4 million to NU, according to university statistics.

The practice of giving admission preference to legacy applicants at colleges and universities across the country has faced increased scrutiny in recent months. In early January, Texas A&M University’s president denounced the university’s preferential treatment of legacies. The decision came in response to criticism that the legacy policy favors white students and contradicts the school’s merit-based admission policies.

These criticisms stem from the University of Michigan affirmative-action cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in June, which questioned using race as a factor in university admissions. The Court condoned the use of race as an admissions factor, but forbade using a quota system. NU filed a “friend of the court” brief with several other private universities in support of affirmative-action policies in university admissions in February 2003.

Despite any Supreme Court ruling — in favor or not — on taking race into account, as a private school NU is not bound by the decision, Todd said. The school’s policies allow the admissions office to weigh legacy status however it sees fit and to actively seek women, minorities and people with disabilities in an effort to increase diversity.

“We are up front with our affirmative action and legacy policies,” he said.

Sociology Prof. Mary Pattillo said legacies are essential to supporting schools financially. No outside source should tell each university how to form its policies, she said.

“Universities should have discretion in creating their incoming class,” Pattillo said.

Like NU, the University of Chicago considers legacy status. But that school only “glances” at legacy students, according to its dean of admission, Theodore O’Neill. He estimated that 5 percent of the school’s students are children of graduates.

“We pay attention to legacies and operate with care,” O’Neill said, “but we do not make our choices based on this.”

Some students wonder how much weight is actually needed to increase the likelihood of acceptance at NU.

Weinberg freshman Dave Fine, the son of two alumni, said his knowing he would receive a certain advantage in applying to NU was a factor in his early decision application. He still does not support the policy, he said.

“Preferential treatment for legacies is a little silly,” he said. “Just because a student’s parents go to school 30 years earlier doesn’t mean they will fit the same profile the school wants.”