What Is a Legacy Student? A Comprehensive Guide

What are legacy students?
May 7, 2024
4 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

What is a legacy student? Does legacy matter for college applications? Keep reading, and we’ll break down everything you need to know!

College applications can be stressful. You must ensure you meet all the requirements and present yourself in the best possible light to stand out from the competition. Students often don’t know that some colleges give certain students preferences behind the scenes. That depends on whether the student is a legacy or not.

You may or may not qualify for this competitive edge in your application without knowing it. Given the right circumstances, you may have an easier or harder time getting into certain colleges you apply to. When it’s said that your network is your net worth, there may be more merit to that statement than you think.

The way students are achieving academic success is evolving. While there is no perfectly fair college admissions policy, some factors are more objective than others. This means that certain criteria used in the admissions process can be measured or assessed with less subjectivity than others.

However, it would be surprising to learn if there were metrics that had nothing to do with your competence academically or athletically but rather what family you’re born into. So, what is a legacy admission? Let’s find out!

What Is a Legacy Student?

Legacy students are individuals related to alums of the college they’re applying to. Often, this will be either a parent or a grandparent. Whenever someone you’re related to graduates from college, you become a legacy to that school. The status isn’t earned or worked for like other college metrics, such as GPA and test scores.

Students don’t reap much benefit from the status unless they plan on attending the same school their relative in question attended. As a result, many colleges and students may not pay much attention to legacy status. Legacy students are often associated with highly selective institutions like the Ivy League.

Being a legacy student doesn’t give you advantages outside of college applications. For instance, legacy status isn’t recognized in high schools or other areas students may engage in before college. Some legacies may feel a greater affinity to one another, but this isn’t a major issue.

Legacy Admission. What Does it Mean?

If someone is admitted with legacy status, they’re considered a legacy student, meaning their application got an extra boost during the admissions process. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were completely unqualified. Legacy admissions still need to meet certain standards and criteria for GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars.

To demonstrate the effect legacy makes, consider Princeton. In recent years, the acceptance rate has been around 5% overall. However, this figure jumps to 30% when looking at legacy students.

Evidence suggests that even if highly qualified applicants don’t attend selective schools, they still perform just as well after college. Critics of legacy admissions argue that the practice is unfair and only gives advantages to those who have already been afforded numerous opportunities.

Students studying on campus lawn

Does Legacy Matter for College Applications?

Not every college uses legacy status when considering applicants. The practice has become more controversial in recent years. Some schools have even gotten rid of the metric altogether. 

Proponents of the practice will claim it encourages community building within the college environment. Those who oppose it argue it restricts diversity on campus as it overwhelmingly favors affluent applicants. The fact of the matter is that colleges have a financial interest in legacy admissions. 

It was once assumed that these students were more likely to donate money after graduating. However, the argument can be made that colleges are cheating themselves out of qualified applicants who can produce research and innovation by pursuing short-term monetary interests.

When Did Colleges Start to Use Legacy Admissions?

There’s evidence to suggest that legacy students started in the early 1900s. Rather than the common narrative espoused by colleges, there’s reason to believe the practice is rooted more in elitism than community building. Unfortunately, legacy admissions seem to be an outdated and illegitimate practice.

As time moves forward, more colleges are getting rid of the practice. The general shift in attitude has been seen across the country, with legacy college admissions being considered an archaic criterion that doesn’t accurately predict student success during or after college.

It’s safe to say that students will likely encounter colleges that use legacy admissions less often in the future. This poses an interesting scenario where parents may be disappointed to learn that their legacy children will no longer have an advantage when it comes time to apply to college.

Female student standing up in library

What Colleges Are Using Legacy Admissions Today?

Approximately half of all colleges in the US use some sort of legacy admissions. Although it’s rarely considered a crucial part of an applicant profile, the practice is still widespread.

It’s also important to note that more selective colleges tend to favor the practice. Schools such as Harvard, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Duke, and Cornell all consider legacy status as an admission criterion.

Despite legacy college admissions being less common at public schools, many still use it. These include the likes of Penn State, the University of North Carolina, the University of Alabama, the University of Virginia, and the University of Oklahoma. 

Should Colleges Stop Legacy Admissions

While some parents who attended prestigious institutions may feel personally attacked when considering abolishing legacy admissions, the practice is difficult to justify. In a cultural climate that does so much to promote equity and emphasize social justice, having policies that blatantly advantage wealthier applicants seems quite strange.

Of course, some argue that if colleges are private institutions, they should be allowed to admit students based on criteria they deem fit. Unfortunately for them, this freedom doesn’t extend to allow for discriminatory practices. Students have more control over things like their SAT score rather than their family.

There’s an additional sense of irony in that there seem to be far fewer vocal critics of legacy admissions than other forms of discrimination. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of the population falls somewhere in the working class and doesn’t have relatives who attended elite schools.

Why Are Legacy Admissions Allowed?

Legacy students commonly come from highly influential backgrounds. These can include wealthy families with ties and connections to the media, politics, and celebrities. As a result, the media is less likely to focus on issues that could jeopardize opportunities for themselves and their families.

Only recently have legacy admissions come under the level of scrutiny they are currently in. As more people become informed through independent sources, continuing unfair policies such as legacy admissions becomes increasingly difficult since they don’t hold up in open debate.

A caveat should be noted, however. Just as Harvard used covert factors to enable race-based admissions, such as baseless “personality” metrics, it’s possible wealthy families may find other ways to give themselves preference. This is already the case with exclusive extracurriculars and training programs that are inaccessible to working-class families.

Two female students smiling and talking


Still not sure about legacy student admissions and what it means for you? Check out our expert answers for more information!

1. Does MIT Consider Legacy Admissions?

No, MIT doesn’t consider legacy admissions.

2. How Much Does Legacy Affect College Admissions?

Legacy has a subtle to modest effect for colleges that practice it.

3. How Important Is Legacy College Admissions?

Legacy admissions are important for otherwise qualified applicants.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been wondering what a legacy student is, you're not alone. A legacy student is a student who has a relative who went to the school they’re applying to. There’s been a shift to favor the practice less over time. It’s difficult to argue a case for why simply being related to alums should put you ahead of other applicants.

Furthermore, there’s also the argument to be made that students won’t necessarily thrive better in an environment just because they had a relative who went there. In fact, the process of legacy admissions makes students less likely to choose a college that may be more suited to them.

Colleges can make more effort to consider other factors that applicants have more control over. These can include things like GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars. Even if you’re not a legacy, that doesn’t mean you won’t get into the schools you want. With the right amount of effort and determination, any school is a viable option in the future.

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