A Lasting Legacy

The Editorial Board congratulates the college on last week’s decision to end legacy preference in admissions and increase financial aid, recognizing that, while it is not a solution to admissions inequity, it is evidence of an institutional commitment to a more diverse future.

At long last, future generations of Amherst students will no longer be selected on the basis of their legacy status. Last Wednesday, President Biddy Martin announced that the college would officially end legacy preference in the admissions process. It is a decision that is long overdue — The Student, for example, has been critiquing the college’s legacy admission policy since at least 2010 —  but nevertheless exceedingly welcome.

The pursuit of equitable admissions is, of course, a deeply complex task. But at its heart, it requires the elimination of any factors that orient themselves around an applicant’s access to privilege.  Legacy is one of these factors, and thus its explicit removal is a definitive step in the project of fairer admissions. Indeed, the college has this week established itself as a leader among our peer institutions, as we are among the first to drop legacy preference alongside our expanded financial aid program.

While the importance of last week’s change cannot be understated, we must recognize that this is not a panacea for the limitations of admissions. The complexity of the process stems from the fact that it is inherently human and therefore inherently biased, and there are problems of equitability that lay beneath admissions policy. But this move is one of concrete and positive change to the way the college builds its student body, and that is to be applauded.

Let us be clear: ending legacy preference is the ethical choice. It is simply unfair to prefer some students based purely on heredity. Since Johns Hopkins ended their legacy preference policy in 2014, for example, the number of students they have admitted who are eligible for Pell grants has increased by ten percent, to 19 percent of the first-year class, while the number of legacies has decreased by 9 percent to 3.5. Schools that have long-standing legacy preference policies have massive disparity in legacy admits: 77 percent of Harvard legacy admits were white, while just 5 percent were Black and 7 percent Hispanic. Indeed, legacy admissions has historically been a tool to preserve institutional prejudice, allowing for the overrepresentation of white applicants of greater privilege — something clearly preventing class diversity, according to Johns Hopkins’ institutional experience. So not only does getting rid of legacy actively promote a more diverse student body, it rids the college of a deeply damaging practice.

Of course, once the selection process is over, the college also has the responsibility to ensure that every accepted student can actually attend. Thus, the college’s major increase in financial aid is therefore an excellent and necessary use of our fast-increasing endowment that will significantly lessen the financial burdens of the students most in need. Moreover, the administration promised to formalize a permanent Student Emergency Fund, an improvement in access grants, and a decrease in the work-study requirement to four hours per week from six — changes that students have long been asking for from administration. Each of these will have measurable impacts as they give more students the opportunity to attend and begin to take financial stresses off of current students.

Least certain about this policy change is how it may be implemented in the admissions office. It is impossible to completely eliminate human bias, and a commitment to holistic admissions means applications can’t be void of a student’s family background. The Common Application will continue to ask where an applicant’s family went to college and so while it is undeniable that the college has taken a necessary first step, it needs to remain transparent about the measures they are taking to ensure that legacy truly does not bias admissions.

No change alone could ever make a system as broad as college admissions equitable. Even so, the size of the step that the college took this past week should not be understated. Despite the room left for growth, the college’s ending of legacy preferential admissions is representative of a commitment to their student body and is, if nothing else, a start to the process of ensuring a future that is ever more inclusive.