Legacy Admissions Scrutinized in Wake of Varsity Blues
In 2004, around 45 students and parents visited Amherst for what was deemed an “admissions workshop” tailored specifically for alumni and their children. Then-Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Katie Fretwell ’81 answered questions from the group, explaining the application process and the college’s expectations for yield rates.
At one point, a visitor raised his hand. “I feel a little bad asking about it, but is there an advantage to a family relationship?” he asked Fretwell.
“The director paused to choose her words, recognizing that her answer would be of critical importance to the alumni whose gifts filled Amherst’s coffers — and who likely wondered whether the president’s ambition for economic diversity would leave their children in the cold,” journalist Dan Golden observed in his 2006 book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges.”
“There can be,” Fretwell eventually answered, adding that the admissions office communicates with the alumni office throughout the admissions cycle.
According to this section of Golden’s book, over the 15 years prior to 2004, Amherst had admitted 50 percent of alumni children as opposed to 20 percent of all applicants. When applicants are reviewed, they are rated on an academic scale from one (outstanding) to seven (unqualified).
“The college accepts 85 percent of applicants given a one rating, with most of the exceptions being impoverished foreign students to whom it can’t afford to give financial aid,” the book reads. “Legacy status comes into play with candidates given a two rating — strong students who have taken challenging courses and scored in the 1400s on their SATs. Amherst admits 40 percent of such candidates overall — but 100 percent of alumni children with a two rating.” A student has legacy status if they have one or more relatives who graduated from the college.
The visit ended with Fretwell encouraging the group of graduates and their children to reach out to Fretwell for “informal ‘conversations’” despite a ban on official interviews.
In the third part of its series examining inequalities in the aftermath of the college admissions scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues, The Student examines the history of legacy admissions at the college and the reflections of both legacy and non-legacy students attending the college today.
History of Legacy Preference Legacy admissions originally began as a way to prevent Jewish and immigrant students from entering prestigious American universities in the 1920s. Legacy preference was invoked to maintain Anglo-Protestant dominance, according to a study titled “The Origins of Legacy Admissions: A Sociological Explanation.”
Today, an admissions edge for legacy students is common among admissions practices across the nation. Documents filed in 2018 in an admissions lawsuit against Harvard revealed that Harvard’s admission rate for legacy students was 34 percent from 2010 to 2015 — a sharp contrast to a six percent admissions rate for non-legacies. The documents also showed that more than 20 percent of white applicants admitted to Harvard in that same time period were legacy students. African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic legacy students each made up seven or less percent.
Similar legacy admissions trends are apparent at Amherst. In an email interview on behalf of Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Matt McGann, Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius wrote that the college does not release admission rates “by subgroup of applicants, except in accordance with federal law or other required reporting.” Later on in the email interview, however, Genelius pointed to numbers highlighting the college’s role in “finding and enrolling talented students from everywhere and from all backgrounds” — including the fact that 46 percent of the student body identify as U.S. citizens of color and nearly 60 percent receive financial aid.
In a 2015 article highlighting the newly-admitted class of 2019, The Student notes that 7 percent of those admitted were children of Amherst alumni. Older reports to secondary schools on the college website also show similar numbers for legacy students — the college stopped publishing legacy numbers in reports for the class of 2012 and onwards. Based on these reports, anywhere from 7 to 13 percent of first-year students are legacy students each year.
Legacy admissions rates at Amherst proved even starker in previous decades. In 1960, the college reported that over 75 percent of legacy students were admitted, compared to 20 percent of the entire applicant pool.
Proponents for legacy admissions have argued that the process encourages alums to make larger donations to the college, benefitting the entire college community. Research on legacy admissions, however, has found that abolishing legacy preference does not lead to a significant decrease in alumni giving.
Others have argued that legacy admissions only slightly increases the chances of students who are already better-than-average applicants. In a 2017 letter to the editor in The New York Times, however, a former Princeton admissions officer wrote that “all the legacies I saw admitted were notably successful high school students and were fully capable of succeeding at a demanding college. But a significant percentage of the class was reserved for these legacies. I would say 5 to 10 percent of the admitted students were legacies who would not otherwise have been admitted.”
Amherst’s Practices According to Genelius, “all applications to Amherst College are evaluated and rated using the same procedures.” Legacy status is only one of the factors considered in admissions. Legacy students, however, gain access to the admissions office in other ways.
Deans’ Day — an event for alumni and their children to interact with admissions deans — “provide[s] an opportunity for Amherst families to learn more about the college admission process generally, and also to see the visiting and application process from Amherst’s admission deans,” Genelius said. Each program includes a group conversation for parents and students — such as the one outlined in Golden’s book — a student-led campus tour and lunch.
Both of Julia Pike’s ’19 parents are Amherst graduates. She attended Deans’ Day and talked to an admissions dean about her chances of coming to the college. “I got to come here and talk to the dean one-on-one,” she said. “It’s crazy that’s something that was granted to me because I have parents who went here … thinking about the scope of privileges — who belongs to the higher socioeconomic bracket or legacy.”
Though Genelius wrote that legacy applicants do not have the opportunity to have their applications reviewed at Deans’ Day, other legacy students also described sharing their applications with admissions deans who let them know if they had a strong chance of getting into Amherst.
For Meg Foye ’21, having two Amherst graduates as parents offered a better understanding of the college’s admissions process. At Deans’ Day, she participated in tours with other children of alumni and a Q&A session with admissions deans. “Deans’ Day and having that chance is definitely an opportunity that most other students don’t have,” she said.
Legacy status provided additional benefits once she matriculated to the college, Foye said. Though many students face imposter syndrome — the belief that one did not deserve to be admitted, resulting in feelings of alienation and fear of being found out — upon entering elite institutions, Foye said legacies tend not to share that same sentiment.
“A lot of people talk about imposter syndrome and for legacy students that may not be as big of an issue because you have this idea that, ‘Oh my family went here; this is a place where I belong.’ Even just having that mindset is a privilege or an advantage,” Foye said.
Though legacy students may not deal with imposter syndrome, Foye noted that she wrestles with “reconciling being aware that there is unfairness in the admission process but that I’m complicit and I benefited off of it.” She hopes, however, that legacy students take more initiative in being aware of their privilege.
“I think especially with [Operation Varsity Blues], people who are legacy students want to be defensive, and be like, ‘No, it was my hard work that got me here,’” she said. “I don’t want to discount that, but I also think it’s important to recognize that privilege. You can’t measure the level to which extent [legacy status] helped you, but you have to acknowledge that it helped you in some way.”
Rachel Kang ’21, a diversity intern, noted that she doesn’t understand the reasoning in favor of legacy admissions.
“I literally have no idea what legacy admissions is about, but I think that just shows what legacy admissions has contributed to my college experience,” she said. “[Legacy students] have not enriched diversity; they haven’t brought anything new. The college has failed to answer the question of why they’re doing that. People don’t ask that question to Biddy face-to-face because that’s such a tradition that has happened for a long time. It might be a good opportunity to start challenging that and ask those questions, especially for DIII schools.”
Diversity Intern Maya Hossain ’21 also criticized the ways in which legacy admissions continues to reproduce wealth inequalities on campus. “Before the early 2000s, college was way more inaccessible, so that demographic especially for Amherst College looks white and male and wealthy because we didn’t have huge, juicy financial aid packages until … the mid-90s. Because of that, the people who are having children are going to be wealthy and for the most part wealthy and white,” she said. “So if Amherst’s whole mission is diversity [and] progress … legacy by definition is contrary to progress because it’s about capitalizing on falling back on tradition of what has been here and recreating that year after year.”
Pike called on the college to carefully consider the future of legacy admissions at Amherst. A “white girl from New York City who went to private school,” she said she’d like to think there are things that make her unique, but at the end of the day, she benefited from an immense privilege as a legacy student. “The meritocracy is such an illusion,” she said.
“I think one of the first steps is to start examining all the systems we think make a meritocracy and thinking about the ways they don’t do that at all,” Pike added. “Standardized testing is a primary example. Something we want to be a noncontextual marker of people’s merit doesn’t function like that. We need to reexamine that and also take into account context more than we do. I think we as a country really like [the rhetoric of] pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Pike suggested that the college follow other colleges across the nation and become test-optional in order to better account for the ways money grants privilege to students seeking admissions.
She acknowledged that the admissions office has to make hard decisions to ensure funding and donors — it is not a simple black-or-white scenario of abolishing or not abolishing legacy admissions she said.
“I think it’s more complicated than that — so much of Amherst’s funding comes from alums and alums whose kids go here, then we get into conversations about varsity athletics and how that also creates the illusion of meritocracy at Amherst,” Pike said. “I think it’s something that I, knowing what I know, and not knowing what I don’t know, can’t make a blanket statement. But I would hope people who have more knowledge and more power are having serious conversations.”
This is the third of a four-part series examining admissions at Amherst.
Part one — “Admissions Scandal Highlights Wealth Disparities at Amherst”
Part two — “College Admissions Scandal Provokes Questions About Athletics”
Part four — “Low-Income Students’ Experiences Marked by Alienation”