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Six of the top 10 universities in the world no longer consider legacy when evaluating applicants—here's why

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On Tuesday, 50 people were charged as part of a massive college bribery scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly paid William Rick Singer almost $25 million to help their children get into elite colleges like USC, Stanford and Yale.

Singer allegedly helped students cheat on SAT and ACT exams and bribed athletic coaches and administrators to pretend that students were athletic recruits.

The scandal has put a spotlight on the college admissions process and sparked debate about the legal yet unethical ways in which wealthy students are often given advantages. One of the processes that has been called into question is legacy admissions — the preferential treatment of applicants whose parents or other relatives attended the college or university to which they are applying.

Of the top 10 universities in the world, according to U.S. News & World Report, four still take legacy status into consideration when evaluating applicants: Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and Harvard.

Harvard University Commencement
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

The six schools in the top 10 that do not take legacy status into consideration are MIT, UC Berkeley, Oxford, CalTech, Cambridge and University of Washington.

Oxford and Cambridge have long rejected the practice of legacy admissions. "Most people from Britain are genuinely shocked to find that elite U.S. universities reserve places for the children of the rich and well connected," writes British academic Nigel Thrift in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The public institutions on the list, UC Berkeley and University of Washington, also do not consider legacy status in their official admissions processes because of their government charters.

MIT and CalTech do not consider legacy status. In a 2012 blog post, Assistant Director of Admissions at MIT Chris Peterson wrote, "Preferring a student whose parents attended a college not only takes away a spot from an equal or better student, it specifically takes away a spot from an equal or better student who overcame more by not having the advantages accrued by prior generations."

"To be clear: If you got into MIT, it's because you got into MIT. Simple as that."

General atmosphere at the Harvard University 2015 Commencement.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow of Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, says that legacy is just one of the many considerations made by college admissions departments that give a significant advantage to applicants from wealthy families.

"Legacy preferences hugely favor the wealthy, as do many preferences for certain athletic skills, musical abilities and so on. The children of big donors seem to get an almost automatic admission," Reeves tells CNBC Make It. "The difference between this illegal scheme and the legal ways in which money buys access is one of degree, not of kind."

Instead of considering legacy, Reeves recommend that colleges consider a lottery system that takes economic factors into consideration in order to build admissions systems that are less confusing and more fair.

"We should start thinking about the idea of economic assignment of action effectively, which is to give the bump that we current give to rich legacy kids to poor non-legacy kids," he says. "Someone who does as well in a tough southeast D.C. high school as my kids, or close to as well, as my kid at an upper middle class public high school in Bethesda, probably deserves a place more than my kids do."

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