The independent news organization of Duke University

Blue devil dynasties

Joining twelve other student-led groups from different peer institutions, Duke Low-income/First-generation Engagement signed a letter last weekend calling for a reassessment of legacy admissions at elite colleges. Legacy admissions at Duke, the letter states, is at its core an unmeritocratic, classist and undemocratic policy. Considering Duke is an institution that is not shy in boasting about its supposed commitment to increasing educational access, its persisting legacy policy should not be immune to close scrutiny.

It comes as no surprise that the typical beneficiaries of these policies statistically come from white, elite families that occupy the upper-echelons of the income bracket. This is by no means the only characterization of legacy applicants at Duke, but it is the one consistently corroborated by research. Comprising around 10.3 to 13.5 percent of each class for the past 14 years, the outsized share of legacy students runs contrary to the University’s claim that one’s born status does not increase one's likelihood of acceptance—a claim that could be substantiated if the admissions office was perhaps more transparent on its policy concerning legacy applicants. 

This current policy—of rewarding those not by virtue of their merits but by the privilege of their family background—reflects a fundamental hypocrisy within this institution. Duke often preaches of its commitment to socioeconomic diversity and educational attainment for all. But the policies and actions practiced behind the closed-doors of the admissions office show that its priorities unfortunately lies elsewhere. The fact that legacy admissions, a policy first implemented at Ivy League universities to keep Jewish students out, continues to be used at Duke at the expense of highly qualified non-legacy applicants, reeks of institutionalized racism and classism. 

By furthering the advantage that these individuals have within the uncertainty of elite university admissions, Duke and its fellow peer institutions pass over equally-qualified students from more diverse backgrounds by virtue of other applicants’ already-advantaged upbringing. For those applicants of lesser socioeconomic means already at a disadvantage in terms of test scores and guidance in the application process, legacy admissions at elite universities exemplify a further hurdle in climbing the ladder through an elite university education. Indeed, this opaque system shows Duke for what it currently is—a monied, white institution created by the privileged, for the privileged. 

The legacy policy further exacerbates Duke’s problem with socioeconomic diversity, which despite institutional rhetoric, has largely remained unchanged. Based on data compiled by the New York Times, Duke is third among peer institutions with the highest percentage of undergraduate students coming from the top one percent—families that earn more than $630,000 a year. The same study shows that access to a Duke degree between different socioeconomic levels has largely remained unchanged since 1980, despite the University’s supposed commitment to furthering diversity. Moreover, the oft-cited argument for legacy admissions—that the policy promotes alumni donations for the university, which could then be used for financial aid services—has been proven false by studies that show that no statistical relationship exists between legacy policies and alumni-giving at elite institutions. 

Ultimately, what this issue comes to down to is transparency—something which has been at a concerning deficit at this University. By having an opaque structure in which it conducts legacy admissions, Duke is doing a disservice to those who are pushing for educational equity, as well as those navigating the college admissions process in aspirations of attending this University. To many both inside and outside of the University, legacy admissions simply does not fit into the values of diversity and inclusion Duke should be striving for. 

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