When anxiety about getting into college is so high, it’s not surprising that people are looking for an edge in the admissions process. Parents often ask whether the fact that they graduated from a college will help their child get into that school. Admissions officers at most colleges don’t provide statistics about the rate of admission for legacy students compared to other students. But at some schools, having a parent or even grandparent that attended the college is clearly an advantage. At my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, 16 percent of undergraduates are legacies. Extra consideration is maximized for students who apply under the Early Decision plan. But legacy status is no guarantee, and the majority of these applicants are denied admission to Penn.
Fostering goodwill among alumni pays off in a number of ways. Happy alums are more likely to donate money to the college. They also tend to stay involved in other helpful ways, including providing internships to current students and career mentoring to new graduates, as well as recruiting prospective students for the college.
Since the percent of alumni that donate to a school is one of the factors used in the US News & World Report rankings, college administrators have another incentive to cultivate loyalty among alumni. When families look at the rankings and see a healthy percentage donating to a college, they may feel better about sending their child to that school, because they believe that alumni have had good experiences there and are willing to support the college.
The alumni advantage can be more compelling if a family has contributed generously to the college for years. With alumni donations accounting for a health percentage of charitable contributions to colleges, administrators would rather not alienate reliable donors.
While preferential treatment of legacy applicants clearly favors affluent students, and can be seen as undermining a school’s commitment to admitting a diverse student body, keeping alumni happy can also mean having the funds to support students who need financial aid and build facilities that enhance the college experience for all students.
In addition to whatever consideration the admissions office gives legacy applicants, after hearing stories around the dinner table and attending college reunions with their parents, children of alumni may be well prepared to make a strong case for admission based on their knowledge of the school. These students also typically come from families that value education and have attended good schools, so they often have strong academic credentials.
While legacy status can factor into admissions decisions, it doesn’t compensate for a mediocre academic record. Strong grades and test scores are necessary but not sufficient. The majority of well-qualified legacy students are routinely denied admission to highly selective schools.
Legacy applicants may get extra consideration at private colleges, but most public institutions, like the University of California and California State University, do not give extra consideration to children of alumni.