Elite colleges in the United States have a long−standing tradition of considering legacy in admissions. Today, legacy is still an important part of the admissions process at schools like Tufts. All students are evaluated on the basis of their grade point averages, their standardized testing scores, their essays and their extracurricular activities. Some students, however, benefit from an extra, special asset — legacy. But how much does legacy really matter?
While Tufts does not reveal exact data about legacy admissions rates, Susan Ardizzoni, director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts, said that the university defines legacy as an applicant's familial relationship to one or more Tufts alumni and that legacy can certainly help an applicant.
"We look at parents, primarily. We also look at siblings and then grandparents, for all the professional schools as well as the undergraduate," she said.
Many other schools are less discreet about the advantages awarded to legacy applicants. In an April 2008 ABC News study, several schools, including Princeton University and Dartmouth and Middlebury Colleges, reported their admissions rates for legacy applicants to be as much as double or more than double as for non−legacy applicants.
"What I can tell you is that when we look at students that have legacy with parents, we will look at those students very closely," Ardizzoni said. "At most colleges or universities in the United States, they look at this tradition. It is important that alumni continue the tradition of support of the university."
While the topic of legacy admissions is a touchy subject for some universities, there are those, like the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), that are completely open about the matter. UPenn has created the Alumni Council on Admissions (ACA), which provides special guidance to legacy applicants.
"The ACA provides alumni and prospective legacy applicants with an understanding of the pieces in Penn's application, how to be a competitive applicant and what it means to apply as a Penn legacy," according to its website.
Ardizzoni explained that the reason why legacy is a matter of debate at Tufts — even though legacy status is clearly asked about on the application supplement — goes back to the history of higher education. Because legacy is passed down through generations, any inequality that previous generations experienced with regard to college admissions are passed down with it.
"Early in the 20th century, legacy admission was almost a guarantee at places, and primarily it was fathers because the Ivies were all men," she said. "For quite a while throughout the middle of the 20th century, that was a big part of the admissions process. The great portion of people who came to Tufts were white, but today we are looking to create a more diverse population."
Sophomore Alfonso Enriquez, who is the first in his family to attend college, sees legacy favoritism as potentially unfair but also sees an appropriate place for the consideration of legacy within a prospective student's application.
"I could see my lack of a legacy being a jeopardizing factor since I was the first person in my family to ever attend college. [But] I never thought that it was an issue that hindered my acceptance into Tufts," he said. "There are plenty of students who have just the same right to be accepted even if they don't have the legacy to prove it. If the student has excelled in high school and his legacy shows that his family did well in college, I think it should be acknowledged."
Ardizzoni stressed that even though legacy is considered as part of a prospective student's application, legacy students must demonstrate the same intellectual capability as any other Jumbo in order to be admitted to Tufts.
"In the end, in the admissions office, one of our responsibilities to the university is that we are confident that the students that we admit are going to be successful at Tufts and will be able to graduate," she said.
Ardizzoni also pointed out that while legacy has been linked to inequality and white privilege, maintaining legacies at universities can prove useful to both the university and its students.
"Certainly the financial part of it is important. Every place relies upon its alumni to help support the programs that they are taking part in, so that legacy base is important," Ardizzoni said. "But it's not just financially."
Through the legacies Tufts has established, alumni become important resources for students both during the application process and after they graduate, she said.
"The career network, students would agree, is very important and it can be a very helpful part of their experience transitioning from the undergraduate life to the work life," Ardizzoni said. "There is work that alumni interviewers do representing Tufts in their communities because we can't go every place in the United States and abroad."
Having legacy connections can also impact prospective students' decisions to apply to a certain school, most likely in a positive way. For sophomore Andre Nolop, having sibling legacy was the reason why he applied early decision to Tufts.
"I'd go so far as to say that him being here was the reason I came to Tufts," Nolop said. "During my brother's freshman year at Tufts, I visited him during Spring Fling. I was able to live in a freshmen dorm with my brother and that weekend I decided that I would apply early to Tufts … and so here I am."
Similarly, sophomore Jenna Rennert said that Tufts being her father's alma mater was a major factor contributing to her decision to apply.
"I absolutely think I made the right choice. Tufts was such a big part of my upbringing, and hearing such good things about the school, I decided I wanted to be a part of it," she said. "There wasn't pressure, but I decided that it was the right choice for me. Hopefully my sister, applying this year, will make the same one."
Rennert sees nothing unfair about giving an advantage to legacy applicants. "It creates a strong sense of community between the generations and binds them together," she said.
Enriquez believes that legacy should only play a role in admissions if it does not give an advantage to applicants from specific socioeconomic backgrounds.
"Unless the system is used to provide a filter to differentiate between two similar applicants, the legacy system could be beneficent," he said. "But if the system is giving an unfair advantage to wealthier students, this can create [a] larger gap between social classes. Then the legacy system should cease to be considered."
Ardizzoni explained that there are other groups of applicants — like low−income applicants, minorities and applicants who would be in the first generation of their families to attend college — that receive special attention. Considering those students with less access to higher education is an important part of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions' work, she said.
"Part of it is that first−generation students, those with socio−economic diversity and students of color are the students that have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education," she said.