Behind the Board: The Editorial Board on Amherst’s Admissions

The Amherst College community is about four weeks into its first full pandemic semester. So far, one thing has become very clear: Covid-19 has created a moment of disruption that has enabled Amherst College to expedite changes that were once cripplingly impeded by bureaucracy.

This week, as with every other week, The Student’s Editorial Board met via Zoom and set out to investigate our editorial question of the semester: How should the institution and community take advantage of this unique time of radical change? But this week, unlike most other weeks, the conversation could not come to a consensus. 

Instead, we found ourselves discussing the college admissions process, its various inequities and potential solutions. Like so many students and writers before us, we had immense difficulty determining which solutions best addressed the problem of deeply inequitable admissions. 

As we engaged with our divergent perspectives, it soon became clear that any attempt to put forth a generally accepted middle-ground would either be inauthentic or insubstantial. Though the weekly editorial in The Student’s opinion section is signed by the Editorial Board as a whole, we cannot pretend to agree on issues as nuanced as solving college admissions for the sole sake of a unified front. 

For this reason, we introduce “Behind the Board: The Editorial Board on Amherst’s Admissions,” an opinion series featuring the individual voices of the Editorial Board as we grapple (and often disagree) with these very pressing and difficult issues of seeking further equity at Amherst College. 

Over the next couple of weeks, we will publish individual commentary from the editors of The Student on such topics as athletic recruitment, standardized testing and legacy admissions. 

We begin the series this week with legacy admissions, the only topic that the Editorial Board was able to find some semblance of consensus on at our meeting: 

After the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, Amherst declined to provide statistics on what percent of legacy students were admitted or what percent of students are legacies. However, research on other institutions shows that legacy status gives applicants a 45 percent increase in their likelihood of admission. This preferential treatment of legacy applicants has rightly been criticized as “affirmative action for the rich,” particularly wealthy white applicants, and thus a barrier to social mobility.

Legacy admissions are generally defended for one main reason; they supposedly encourage important alumni donations, allowing schools to provide a better quality education and accept more low-income students for affordable prices. The thinking is that legacies will create intergenerational family attachments to the school that encourage long-lasting (and larger) financial commitments. 

However, as a 2011 Harvard study shows, there is no statistically significant evidence that legacy admissions increase alumni donations. In fact, the study showed that while Yale decreased its number of accepted legacies over the period of study, its alumni donations actually increased, with its endowment leaping from $2 billion to $16 billion in just three decades. 

But even if legacy admissions was generating extra money, that surplus doesn’t seem to actually benefit underrepresented groups. In 2017, the New York Times reported that 21.1 percent of the Amherst student body was from the top 1 percent of Americans, while only 24.4 percent came from the bottom 60 percent, hardly an even split. 

When that initial defense fails, institutions make vague claims that legacy admissions provide continuity, a unique school culture and spirit or even a helpful environment for low-income students. A Harvard spokesperson noted that legacy admits generally have higher test scores and grades than the rest of the applicant pool, and in 2018 Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said that legacy admits were generally already amongst the most desirable applicants due to “a deep knowledge of the institution” and “well put-together” applications. 

If true, statements like Bacow’s mean that institutions that give a bump to legacy applicants are giving yet another leg up to applicants who already have advantages over the rest of the pool. For these reasons, the Editorial Board calls on the college to abolish legacy admissions. 

We are not the first to call for this measure. The Campaign to Reclaim Amherst explicitly calls on the college to ”end its practice of legacy admissions because of its clear basis in anti-Semitism, racism, and classism.” We, the Editorial Board, support this call to action. Though the legacy system may have outgrown some aspects of its problematic historical roots (it is no longer a mechanism of keeping Jewish applicants out, for example), it does not offer any present advantages that merit keeping it.

The disproportionate support given to legacy students presents itself in a particular way in the Amherst College admissions process. Before the Amherst application deadline, prospective applicants learn about the college in a variety of ways. Depending on what category you fall into though will largely determine what pre-application experiences you get. 

Those from socioeconomically and racially underrepresented backgrounds get the opportunity to participate in Access to Amherst (A2A), formerly known as the Diversity Open House (DIVOH). At A2A, prospective applicants meet with academic and financial aid deans, as well as get to know Amherst students and the culture at large. A2A thus provides the benefit of filling the insider knowledge gap for students from underrepresented backgrounds. However, whatever good A2A does in leveling the playing field is ultimately canceled out by the advantage legacy students get at Dean’s Day. 

The college’s website describes Dean’s Day as a day to “give the sons and daughters of Amherst alumni and their parents the opportunity to learn more about Amherst and its admission policies.” Dean’s Day attendees are able to get their applications looked at by an admissions counselor who tells them whether they have a shot at getting into the college. This is a new level of personalized, insider knowledge that disrupts the balance of opportunity provided by A2A. 

The contrast between these two experiences is not necessarily the end-all-be-all (getting rid of Dean’s Day would not necessarily solve our problems) but rather should be taken as a symbol of the larger admissions inequities embedded in legacy systems.

Thus the Editorial Board does not just demand that legacy admissions be abolished. Even further, we call on the administration to take the support and resources that would go to recruiting legacy students and lend them to those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Our channels of support and resources should go in the direction of the communities that need them most — legacy students are statistically and historically not those communities. 

The cost of the continuation of legacy admissions is manifold. Legacy admissions reserve a substantial portion of places at Amherst along demographic lines, boosting applicants who are white and wealthy and in turn, homogenizing the student population, which ultimately takes away from the Amherst experience as a whole.

While the racial demographics may change over time, as Amherst’s current students become alumni with their own children, so long as Amherst remains a prestigious institution, its legacy applicants will invariably have socioeconomic benefits, in the form of tutoring, SAT prep and personal essay guidance, over the majority of the applicant pool — benefits which often do enough to make many applicants top contenders before the legacy bump is even considered.

There is no cost-benefit analysis to justify legacy admissions. The only remaining function of this structure is to promote the gatekeeping of education and discourage social mobility. It is time for Amherst College to stop considering legacy as a factor of admissions — it will ultimately preserve the integrity of the college’s own legacy in the generations to come.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 3)