“What’s in a name” is a quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore the personal significance of a name.
I am a legacy student.
I don’t like admitting it — a silent bitterness always accompanies it. My work to get into Northwestern feels degraded, my presence here debased. The guilt and impostor syndrome come at full speed.
But these feelings, these judgments, are all justified. As a beneficiary of the legacy advantage, I come from a place of immense privilege. It is possible that I would not be here if not for my family name. And though I acknowledge my legacy status, I realize that its existence is unjustifiable.
I was hesitant to apply to Northwestern. I knew from the start that it wasn’t really going to be me applying, but rather, my name. And, boy, does my family name have history at Northwestern. I can find my grandma in the class of ‘48, my aunt in the class of ‘82, my uncle in the class of ‘85 and my mom in the class of ‘87. I had purple flowing through my veins before I was even born. And yet, despite the disproportionate number of NU alumni in my family, carrying on the legacy was never pushed upon me. In fact, Northwestern only came up in the occasional anecdote or memory. We never watched NU football, my mom never wore a Northwestern shirt, my family never donated to the university. I didn’t even step foot on campus until my senior year of high school.
But I applied. After all, Northwestern fit the bill: a beautiful, mid-sized, academically rigorous college close to home. But that excitement, that sense of pride I so often heard about when you get that NU acceptance letter was muted for me. Was I thrilled that I got into one of the nation’s hardest universities? Of course. Was I aware that my acceptance letter was practically drafted upon my birth? Yes, very much so. But I celebrated as if I had done it all on my own, shoved that impostor syndrome deep down, and made my deposit.
My intention is not to complain about my privilege. Nor do I mean to generalize my feelings to all legacy students. Many regard their legacy status as a source of pride – a way of carrying on a tradition. I feel like I am connecting with my grandmother in a way I never got to. But this opportunity may not have been given to me fairly. As someone who rejects the abuse of privileges, I have hypocritically stepped knee-deep into it.
Legacy admissions is an unnecessary and persistent spoils system scheme. It’s time universities stop spoiling those who need it least.
The beneficiaries of the legacy advantage, more often than not, come from white upper-class families. We already reap the advantages of our parent’s prestigious degree. We live in the best neighborhoods, go to the top high schools and gain access to resources that make us desirable in our application regardless of legacy. A legacy status doubles our advantage. But many universities downplay the effect of the legacy advantage, claiming that the right name is just a “thumb on the scale” that can help in cases of two equally qualified candidates. But just how hard is that thumb pushing?
In a study of the top 100 universities in the U.S. (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report), three out of four colleges take legacy status into consideration. The amount of weight placed upon legacy status varies from school to school, but competitive private universities are much more likely than their public counterparts to consider legacy in applications. At Harvard, legacies’ chances of admittance are quintupled, with legacy students making up a staggering 36% of the class of 2022. The statistics within the legacy population are skewed as well. If you are a white student at Harvard, the chances that you are a legacy is almost three times higher than for any person of color.
Northwestern, frustratingly, does not have any official legacy statistics open to the public. However, in an interview with The Daily Northwestern, president Morton Schapiro approximated about 10% of undergraduate Northwestern students have a parent who was once a Wildcat. Chances are high that those students had their applications read over by President Schapiro himself. Every year, about 550 applications of prospective students with connections (to alumni, donors or Schapiro himself) are sent to the president’s office. What percentage of those 550 students are accepted, however, is unknown.
Frankly, it’s no surprise that white families tend to benefit the most from the legacy advantage. The idea first began in the 1920s as a method of discriminating against immigrants, particularly Jewish applicants. Universities have hidden behind admitting legacy students as a cover for maintaining good relations with alumni and receiving a higher level of donations. However, recent studies refuted the idea that admitting legacy students increases revenue. Even if their claim was valid, it would still be a terrible reason to continue legacy admissions. Admitting students based on monetary incentives is unethical; this should be no exception.
Though some top universities have successfully removed legacy admissions, I find it highly improbable that the advantage will ever truly go away. President Schapiro agrees. He argues that phasing out the legacy preference would be depriving the now more diverse student body of their chance to utilize the advantage through their future children. In essence, he believes that we should equalize the spoils system rather than abolish it altogether. This misses the heart of the problem: the ethical issue of profiting off your parents’ choice of college.
Would I have gotten into NU solely on my own merit? That is a question I’ll never get answered. And it is a question nobody should have to ask. It’s not radical to believe that college applicants should be evaluated by their own accomplishments, not their relatives’. There should be no parental influence, no monetary incentives, no thumbs on the scales. And if a lifted thumb means the scales tip the opposite way, then so be it.