As Duke’s admissions officers carefully pore over thousands of applications in preparation for May, they will consider a number of factors, concrete and intangible, to craft a class that is both qualified and diverse. One of these considerations—where a student’s parents went to college—tells us nothing about her academic merit or unique qualifications. Nevertheless, for decades, a student’s immediate relationship to Duke Alumni has factored into the delicate admissions calculus.
The children of alumni tend to make up 10 to 25 percent of students at selective universities, a trend that Duke typifies—children of alumni made up 20.4 percent of students in 2008, and 13 percent of the class of 2015. Although the admissions office denies that legacy status adds significant weight to an application, consistently admitting legacy applicants at such high rates amounts to the exclusion of otherwise qualified applicants for no other reason than to reward someone else’s filial connection to the university.
Legacy status has no bearing on an applicant’s merit, does not attempt to account for societal inequities and disadvantages and fails to promote diversity. In fact, given that legacy applicants tend to be white, Protestant, and private-school educated, granting their applications extra weight actively undermines the University’s commitment to diversity and institutional equity. Duke’s legacy admissions policy lacks a traditional justification, and, because preferential treatment for legacy applicants—however slight—results in the exclusion of some students based on an unjustifiable factor, the practice stands as patently unfair.
Two additional justifications for legacy admissions exist, but neither possesses the strength to warrant a policy that compromises fairness and diversity. The first claim—that admitting the children and grandchildren of alumni provides a substantial financial benefit to the University—is simply false. A recent report, authored by Chad Coffman of Winnemac Consulting, analyzed alumni contributions at the nation’s 100 top universities (Duke falls into this category), and found that, when controlling for variables such as alumni wealth, “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy-preference policies and total alumni giving at top universities.” Duke’s admissions office has not produced evidence to the contrary, and, if it cannot prove that legacy admissions generate a significant payoff, then it cannot justify the policy on those grounds.
Still, some attempt to justify legacy admissions by contending that multi-generational Duke families enrich and improve the community. They argue that legacy students possess a unique enthusiasm for Duke that radiates outward and improves the overall character and spirit of the school. But this phenomenon, even if it were not extremely ill-defined and impossible to measure, does not carry the moral weight necessary to justify a practice inimical to both fairness and to Duke’s commitment to diversity. Specious claims about improved school spirit and community do not outweigh Duke’s obligation to preserve fairness in the admissions process—arguably the most fundamental obligation of any University that values academic merit, equity, and diversity.
Duke’s legacy admissions policy is not only unfair but unjustified. Because Duke cannot rationalize its legacy policy on the grounds of financial necessity or community enrichment, the admissions process should no longer grant any consideration whatsoever to legacy status.