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Why Yale Favors Its Own

Y: Last August, President Bush said the practice of giving legacies—children of alumni—an edge in college admissions should be abolished. What is Yale’s policy? Is there a specific directive to the admissions office?


“I don’t know which family has the longest run of consecutive generations at Yale.”

L: There’s not a specific directive. A great many factors are given weight in Yale College admissions decisions. Academic promise is paramount, but we also look for evidence of character and leadership potential in teacher recommendations, the student’s essay, and extracurricular activities. We give weight to creative talent and athletic ability as well. We seek racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity within each class. Among all these factors, because we value the loyalty and involvement of our alumni, legacy status is given positive weight in the college admissions decision.

Y: About 14 percent of last year’s entering freshmen were children or grandchildren of alumni of the college, graduate school, or professional schools. The admissions rate for legacies is about 30 percent—three times the rate for non-legacies.

L: It’s important to understand that being a legacy does not guarantee admission to Yale College. But the pool of legacy applicants is substantially stronger than the average of the rest of the pool. The grades and test scores of the legacies we admit are higher than the average of the rest of the admitted class, and the legacies that matriculate achieve higher grades at Yale than non-legacy students with the same high school grades and test scores.

When you stop to think about it, this isn’t so surprising. Legacy students are coming from highly educated households, where books, reading, and cultural life are prized. They tend to be more exposed to and more serious about intellectual matters. We are admitting very strong students as legacies.

Y: Most of the country would take issue with you, though. A recent poll showed that three-fourths of Americans think legacy preference should be ended. A City University of New York official said, “This is a policy that is manifestly unfair.” A Berkeley historian called it “indefensible.”

L: I can see that argument from the standpoint of a public institution, where the taxpayer is supporting a significant portion of the cost of education. But private institutions are different. Private institutions depend on resources provided by their alumni. Thirty-five per cent of the total revenue of the university comes from past and present alumni in the form of current gifts and endowment income.

Y:  So part of it is straightforward financial self-interest. And what about the alumni who were legacies themselves? Are they better donors than the non-legacies?

L: Absolutely. No doubt about it. Legacy students, when they become adults, are on average significantly more generous donors. People develop an allegiance to the institution that strengthens over generations. Look at the people active as volunteers—many are legacies.

Y: What about the children of the biggest donors? Do the admissions officers know the financial status of applicants' parents?

L:  For the most part, no. We admit applicants need-blind. The admissions applications are kept separate from the financial statements. But we do advise the admissions office about applications coming from the children or grandchildren of significant donors and of alumni who have given significant volunteer service. People in the admissions world call these “institutional cases.” Which doesn’t mean they’re automatically admitted! Many of our generous donors and active volunteers are disappointed every year, but most understand how high the standard of admission is, and most would not want it any other way.

Y: Doesn’t legacy preference make it more difficult to change historical patterns in the student body that Yale might want to change?


“We have increased the number of women, minority, and international students.”

L: No. Over the years we have been able to increase the number of women, minority, and international students without impediment. And today, because we have had a diverse student body for a generation, we are seeing many more legacy applicants from religious groups that were historically excluded and racial groups that were historically underrepresented. We will continue to look across geography, across nationalities, and across racial and ethnic backgrounds to try to produce a class that is internally diverse, because that makes the experience of Yale College better for every student.

Y: There are also some alumni who find that goal misguided and believe Yale should give much greater preference to legacies.

L: Yes, on this issue, I’m solidly in the middle, like Goldilocks. Some believe there are too many legacies; some believe there are too few. We try to get it “just right.”

Y: Do you have any idea what family has had the longest-running legacy? The Binghams? The Tafts?

L: There are people at Yale who can trace their ancestry back to some of the earliest students, but I don’t know which family has the longest run of consecutive generations at Yale. It would be interesting to pose this as a question to your readers. It would be nice to hear from anyone whose family has been represented at Yale for, let’s say, six or more consecutive generations.  the end


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