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Harvard's incoming freshman class is one-third legacy—here's why that's a problem

Top schools now have record low admission rates, but only some students have to worry about what that means for their chances. Legacy admissions, at elite institutions especially, put a select few at a distinct advantage.

Harvard's incoming class of 2021 is made up of over 29 percent legacy students, reports The Harvard Crimson. Last year's applicants who had Harvard in their blood were three times more likely to get into the school than those without.

The case is the same at Stanford. In fact, across the top 30 schools in the U.S., one review from 2011 discussed in the Washington Post found that children of alumni "had a 45 percent greater chance of admission" than other applicants.

Commencement ceremonies at the Harvard Business School campus in Boston, MA.
Rick Friedman | Corbis | Getty Image
Commencement ceremonies at the Harvard Business School campus in Boston, MA.

Legacy students tend to be wealthy and white, students who, as a group, are already disproportionately represented at college. The New York Times found that, at five Ivy League schools, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown, as well as 33 other colleges, there are more students from families in the top one percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

That's not an accident. In fact, in the early 20th century, universities introduced a preference for legacies on purpose to exclude less-desirable applicants, such as immigrants, and to keep their campuses homogeneous, Think Progress reports. Princeton adopted a comprehensive admissions process in 1922, which led to a drop in its Jewish student population. The chairman of Princeton's Board of Admissions acknowledged that he had wanted to solve their "Jewish problem."

Nowadays, supporters of this tradition are more likely to argue that alumni with kids at their alma mater will be more inclined to donate and so boost overall fundraising. But that claim has been proven false.

As the Washington Post notes, Chad Coffman found in his book, "Affirmative Action for the Rich," that when seven colleges stopped accounting for legacy status during the admissions process between 1998 and 2008, there was "no short-term measurable reduction in alumni giving."

Prioritizing legacy crowds out applicants from lower-income backgrounds, and those students arguably need more what elite schools have to offer: a great education, connections and resources such as tuition scholarships and grants for unpaid internships that will help them join the professional class.

At this point, low-income students are vastly underrepresented at elite institutions. Nationally, 40 percent of students receive federal aid in the form of a Pell Grant, the Boston Globe reports, but they only account for an average of 16 percent of Ivy League undergraduates.

A new study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce points out that selective schools should have no problem affording to admit more lower-income students.

What's more, the authors write, letting high achievers from the working class go to an elite school will give them a higher chance of graduating, and in effect, "go a long way toward advancing equity in this country — by giving students in poor financial circumstances a far greater chance of succeeding."

Schools such as Harvard and Yale have increased their share of low-income students in recent years. And, in 2016, 30 institutions, including all the Ivy League schools, signed the American Talent Initiative, which "aims to attract, enroll and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students" by 2025.

That's heartening, given that America's current outdated system of giving preference to the relatives of former students is essentially cheating, says Richard V. Reeves, author of the new book "Dream Hoarders" and a senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute.

"To operate a hereditary principle in college admissions," he tells CNBC Make It, is unfair. Especially for a country that tells itself it is a meritocracy.

Reeves went to Oxford, but he says that didn't ensure his son's admission.

When his son applied, "he didn't get in, and it would have been seen as preposterously unfair" if the son had been admitted simply because his father is an alumnus. "So we might have a hereditary monarchy [in the U.K.], but, by the way, [the members of that monarchy] don't get to go to Oxford and Cambridge anymore, either, because they don't get good enough grades."

That kind of preference for legacy admissions in the U.K. "disappeared in the twentieth century," he says.

By contrast, "the way we organize our education system" in the U.S., he says, "excludes many of those in the bottom 80 percent." The system is "destroying the American Dream, rather than living it."

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