As colleges across the country grapple with an admissions scandal involving cheating and bribery by wealthy parents, Northwestern Political Union (NPU) hosted its first debate of the quarter on Monday on the topic of legacy admissions. About 40 people gathered in the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs to hear arguments for and against removing legacy status from Northwestern’s admissions process. In an audience poll taken before opening statements, a wide majority of those present abstained.

Photo by Zack Miller / North by Northwestern

Pamela Chen, a Weinberg freshman, represented the side in favor of removing legacy admissions. “Legacies themselves aren’t problematic, but the system that rewards them is,” she said in her opening argument. Chen went on to describe how the legacy program stifles racial and socioeconomic diversity on campus by providing an easier pathway for primarily wealthy white students. Citing a Duke University study, Chen claimed that acceptance rates were roughly three times higher for students whose parents had attended the university compared to non-legacy students. No such data has been made available for Northwestern University.

Jake Gordon, a Weinberg junior, delivered the opposing argument and was quick to agree that the admissions process is skewed toward the privileged. However, he said that removing legacy admissions would be “one of the worst solutions to this problem.” Gordon listed a number of other potential steps to increase diversity, including boosting scholarships for first-generation students and funding resources to facilitate inclusion. He also stated that the kind of inter-generational relationships provided by legacies can help to boost donations and school spirit.

This conversation comes at a charged time in the U.S. Hours before the debate, 13 parents and an athletics coach pled guilty to various charges related to the F.B.I.'s investigation into the college bribery scandal. As the debate was opened to field questions and comments from everyone present, many cited the scandal as an example of socioeconomic status poisoning the admissions process.

Some in the audience were quick to point out that the legacy program is beneficial when soliciting donations from alumni to fund university programs. One NPU member recalled working in a call center and meeting resistance from alumni whose children were not admitted. Anna Cork, the union’s director of recruitment, pointed out that need-blind admissions for low SES students were in part funded by donations attributable to the legacy program. But Cork later added that “just because a decision means more money for a school, that doesn’t always make it right.”

After Chen and Gordon delivered their closing statements, the audience took the same poll again. The majority of those present voted for removing the legacy admissions process.