Gutierrez: Legacy students are hurting the rest of us

Pallas Gutierrez, Opinion Editor

Agatha Advincula, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Daily Pennsylvanian about her experience as a legacy student. Advincula explained that she was initially ecstatic to go to Penn, but when she arrived she was mocked by other students who assumed that the only reason she was accepted to Penn was her family connection. She claims her title with pride, saying that her family is a part of Penn’s history. Advincula is obviously entitled to describing her experiences, but as a first generation college student, my only thought after reading her article was, “She’s missing the point.”

When people like me criticize legacy admissions, we are not criticizing specific people like Advincula. We are criticizing the systemic racism and classism of American universities and colleges that legacy admissions reinforces. Legacy admissions gives a leg up to students whose family members attended the university of their choice. What the reality of this looks like is that legacy admissions give advantage to wealthy, white people whose families have been in power in the United States for generations.

Public information about Northwestern’s legacy admissions rates is sorely lacking, so I cannot speak specifically to our relationship with legacy admissions. As an example, Harvard’s overall acceptance rate is about 6 percent, while their legacy acceptance rate is about 33 percent. This advantage is disproportionately afforded to white people: 21.5 percent of white applicants accepted to Harvard were legacy students, while legacy students composed only 6.6 percent of accepted Asian students and 4.8 percent of accepted black students.

Naviance, a college and career readiness software company, estimated that at 64 colleges the admissions rate for legacy students was about 31 percent higher than overall official admissions rates.

While an estimated 18 percent of legacy students are below a university’s middle 50th percentile of standardized testing scores, some legacy students fit or exceed their university’s admissions criteria. However, it is important to acknowledge other institutional factors at play. Because legacy students have highly educated parents, they are more likely to receive academic support at home than students whose parents did not attend college in the US, or students whose parents have to work longer hours to support their families.

The process of holistic review, adopted by some colleges, attempts to consider every factor in a student’s life that would affect their grades, test scores and what they could contribute to the university. These factors include academic record, test scores, extracurriculars, race and ethnicity and legacy status. While this may be a step in the right direction, the inclusion of legacy status as a factor at all is still problematic. Legacy students are not necessarily any more qualified than their peers, and if they are, they should be able to get in on merit alone, rather than family names and contributions to the university.

The system of legacy admission is reflective of systemic institutional problems that privilege the wealthy, largely white, elite at the disadvantage of everybody else. In return for critiquing these systems, many first generation students of color are told, mockingly or seriously, that they were only accepted to top universities for their diversity.

As I was applying to colleges two years ago, I found myself worrying about legacy students. I worried that other students whose families had attended Northwestern, possibly for generations, would receive a spot instead of me. All I had to offer was myself; I don’t have family money or a family name connected to NU. I attended a strong high school in New York City, but so had thousands of other kids in New York. My application was only as strong as I was, and I worried that wouldn’t be enough to get me into my dream school.

I was elated when I got in, but as the excitement set in, the dread came in waves. What if other students assumed, as some of the students at my high school suspected, that I was only accepted to Northwestern because I was a first generation Latinx student? I can never know for sure, but when I feel like I don’t belong at NU, I remember that, by design, I very much do not belong. Elite private colleges were designed to educate rich white men, a category I do not belong in. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t earned my spot here.

Nowhere in her article does Advincula acknowledge the way that legacy admissions disadvantage people like me by prioritizing people like her. She doesn’t consider, as Penn freshman and first generation low income student Lucia Gonzalez points out, that we can go on to bring prestige to our schools. Sonia Sotomayor and Michelle Obama were both first generation college students at Princeton, and no one can argue that they don’t bring prestige to their alma maters.

None of these ideas are new. Editors and columnists before me have written about legacy admission and its institutional flaws. Andrea Bian, spring Opinion editor and current recruitment editor, wrote about the Harvard trial over Asian American admissions and how legacy admissions was more problematic. I am by no means the first person to criticize this process, and unless things change very quickly, I will not be the last. But in light of the college admissions scandals, it is reasonable to demand transparency from our institutions, and ask that administrators release information on how many students are being admitted because of their connections, rather than their individual merits.

If America wants to live up to its ideals of equality and true meritocracy, our institutions of higher education must push for change. A college education prepares students for career success, and more and more jobs are requiring a bachelor’s degree. Eliminating legacy consideration in admissions processes could level the playing field for students whose parents didn’t attend college for whatever reason, and if legacy students are so valuable because of their high achievement and unique accomplishments, they’ll be admitted through the regular admissions process anyway.

Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication sophomore. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.