Amherst College Aims to Change the Makeup of Its Student Body by Ending Legacy Admissions

Johns Hopkins University has seen a significant increase in the number of first-generation and low-income college students since it stopped offering admission preference to alumni children seven years ago. Amherst College is now announcing it will follow the lead of Johns Hopkins University, amid increasing demands for college admissions equality.

Legacy preference, the longstanding practice of giving an admissions advantage to children of alumni, is used by 73% of the most selective universities — those, like Amherst, that admit less than 25% of applicants, according to a 2019 survey on admissions practices.

“Legacy preferences that benefit wealthy and white students are frustrating the good efforts that colleges and universities are making to diversify by class and race,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who edited a book on legacy preference, titled Affirmative Action for the Rich “It’s not much of a leap to suggest that eliminating this unfair practice that benefits wealthy and white students will result in greater diversity.”
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<strong>“It’s not much of a leap to suggest that eliminating this unfair practice that benefits wealthy and white students will result in greater diversity.”</strong>In 2011, a study showed that legacy students were three times more likely to get into highly selective colleges than non-legacy ones. Amherst’s legacy students make up approximately 11% of all classes, which is comparable to elite colleges.

“Now is the time to end this historic program that inadvertently limits educational opportunity by granting a preference to those whose parents are graduates of the College,” Amherst President Biddy Martin, who recently announced she would step down next summer, said in a statement. Additionally, Amherst College plans to raise annual financial aid offering to $71 million. It expects to award full tuition scholarships to students from the bottom 80% U.S. households.

“We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status,” Martin said.

There are increasing demands for change

Amherst’s decision comes as advocates for college access press for changes to address the inequities that give wealthy students an admissions advantage and that hinder many low-income students and students of color. Colorado has passed legislation that bars public colleges and universities from giving preference in admissions to applicants who are not of the same generation.

Johns Hopkins University has been a shining example of how colleges can take the step to eliminate legacy preference for admissions. Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels didn’t publicly announce the change until 2019, explaining that the school wanted to watch the impact of the change “and ensure that our approach was sustainable.”

It has had a profound impact.

“It has changed our class greatly. We’re more diverse on many, many dimensions,” says David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Johns Hopkins, noting that the policy change is one part of an approach that also includes more financial aid offerings and on-campus support for first-generation and low-income students. “It’s helped us attain what we feel is a much more dynamic and fertile intellectual environment for our students.”

Johns Hopkins saw an increase in first-generation students since the introduction of this change. Also, Johns Hopkins now has Pell Grants for federal financial assistance for low-income students. The percentage of first generation students increased from 8.1% in the fall 2013 class to 17.8% in the fall 2021 class. Pell Grant eligible students increased from 12.8% to 20.1% between 2013 and 2021.

The percentage of legacy students has dropped to 3.7% from 8.5% in the 2013 first-year classes and then to 8.5% in the 2021 class.

Are donations at risk?

There are concerns that college alumni could withdraw support or donations. These fears often surface in discussions about end of legacy admissions.

“I think for many institutions, as for us, our alumni are a very important constituency,” Phillips says.

“On one level, it can be hard. You don’t want to turn them off. But on another level, we have to remain focused on what our mission is, our goals for diversity and our goals for the university and its role in a liberal democracy,” he says.

A spokesperson for Johns Hopkins said alumni donations have steadily grown since 2014, when the school ended legacy preferences, and Daniels has said the university “saw broad alumni support” after announcing the change in 2019.

At least one analysis, published in Kahlenberg’s 2010 book, concluded there was no evidence that legacy preference led to increased alumni donations at top universities from 1998 to 2008.

“Our findings cast serious doubt on the financial justification for legacy preference policies,” the authors wrote, adding that they found “no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving” resulting from schools eliminating legacy preferences.

A ‘vocal minority’ opposing change

According to the 2019 Suffolk University/USA Today survey, a majority of respondents oppose special treatment of children of alumni. However, income influenced their responses. Only 21% said legacy preference is acceptable for those earning more than $140,000 per year, while 48% of those who make less than $50,000 per year think it’s okay.

“The alumni groups that favor legacy preference are powerful, and they care intensely,” Kahlenberg says. “It’s a vocal minority that is dictating policy.”

He’s hopeful that more universities might start to ignore that vocal minority.

“The case for legacy preferences has been weak all along, and I’m surprised that Amherst and other institutions didn’t jettison this anachronistic practice even earlier,” Kahlenberg says. “But I’m hopeful that other institutions will follow Amherst’s lead.”


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