Widgets Magazine


It’s time to eliminate legacy preference in Stanford admissions

This April, when Stanford released its admissions statistics, most celebrated was that our admit rate had dropped to 5.07 percent, below every Ivy League university. It certainly is a blessing that we are able to pick one out of 20 students from a body of 42,167 applicants. With such a rich talent pool to select and places at Stanford scarce, it is wrong to offer a preferential admissions process to legacy applicants due to their extrinsic and class-defined characteristics of having a parent or step-parent with a graduate or undergraduate degree from Stanford.

Let me clarify what legacy preference is. The article “What it Takes” in the November/December 2013 issue of Stanford Magazine said the following: “[Dean of Admissions Richard] Shaw is a strong advocate for considering legacy status in the overall student assessment, but emphasizes that it is only relevant if the student is competitive in all other aspects.”

This sounds reasonable, since if all things are equal, why shouldn’t Stanford extend this opportunity to a person already “in the Stanford family”? Another line in this article put this sentiment into question, however: “It used to be that every application would be read twice. Now, only one reading is guaranteed, although – thanks, Mom and Dad – every legacy application still gets two sets of eyes.” This means that regardless of the quality of an application, a legacy applicant gets a second opportunity to state his case to the admissions board.

Legacy preferences force our already overloaded admit personnel to evaluate legacy students vs. non-legacies through an asymmetric process, measuring the intrinsic qualities of non-legacies – such as their critical thinking and writing skills – against both the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of legacy applicants. While it could be argued that there are asymmetries involved when evaluating any non-academic variables such as musical talent, athletic skill, difficult life circumstances or any other number of potential variables, I argue that these at least involve some level of personal development and imply the overcoming of obstacles by the applicant, unlike legacy status. Furthermore, comparisons become even more challenging when Stanford’s admissions officers may collectively have only one opportunity to look at a standard application, but two chances to read a legacy application.

How much of an effect does legacy preference actually have on admissions? In a 2011 study by Michael Hurwitz of 30 selective colleges, his experiments showed that legacy applicants enjoyed an average 23.3 percent boost in admission rates after controlling for SAT scores, personal statement quality and the strength of teacher recommendations. In the September/October 2013 issue of Stanford Magazine, President Hennessey stated, “…for alumni children, even though the admissions rate for them is two or three times higher than the general population, it’s still very tough to get in.” [My emphasis.]Assuming the median of Hennessy’s estimated legacy admit rate, or 2.5 times the general admit rate (12.5 percent), this means the legacy acceptance rate would drop to about 10 percent. If 10 percent of Stanford’s Class of 2018 is currently made up of legacies (equal, for example, to the proportion of legacies at Brown University, according to their Dean of Admissions Jim Miller), it follows that approximately 173 – as opposed to 213 – legacy students would be admitted.

Who are these approximately 40 students per year who would otherwise not be accepted? We can’t speak specifically, but the makeup of legacy applicants is largely from the upper-income brackets. Stanford alumni go on to be far more economically successful than the general population, with an average mid-career salary of $114,000 versus the $51,017 national median household income. This means that applications from underprivileged students – students who have already overcome the challenges of getting a fee-waiver or saving money just to apply to Stanford – face an added barrier of competing against typically upper-income legacy-preference applications. I believe this stark reality is a strong argument against this form of plutocracy.

I propose that to end this plutocracy, we should take a first step of removing the rule that legacy applications will be read twice. Eventually, I hope that we can completely remove the field on the application that lets you write in your relatives that went to Stanford. Moreover, I hope that we can promote a dialogue about what our admissions process should look like, examining how we should deal with the various incomparable intrinsic qualities that we also select our students for (such as the examples I mentioned above, including socioeconomic status, athletic ability and so on and so forth). This is an important dialogue that needs to reshape itself over time, as I believe it must radically do right now.

To some practical concerns. Will Stanford’s endowment suffer if we turn away the grandchildren of wealthy alumni donors such as John Arrillaga ($151 million in 2013), or if we replace tuition ($56,411 per year) from wealthier legacies with financial aid packages? Although the extra money does fund financial aid and teacher salaries and infrastructure improvements, my response is, “Should we care?” When the Board of Trustees quoted our Statement on Investment Responsibility (1971), saying that they would stop investment in coal companies since the endowment should not invest in “corporate policies or practices that create substantial social injury,” they confirmed that we should not acquiesce to financial ends when it severely compromises our values. We should extend similar protections to the ideal of meritocracy that a liberal education such as Stanford’s is supposed to espouse.

As President Hennessy said to Stanford Magazine, “For every student who gets in, we turn down two or three who are just as good.” The problem is that by choosing 40 legacy applicants every year as opposed to the 40 who would otherwise get those spots, we say to every single one of those “just as good” students that maybe they could’ve gotten into Stanford, if only they had been born with the correct, Stanford, upper-class accent.


Jonathan Poto ’14


Jonathan Poto ’14 is a B.S. Candidate in MS&E. Contact him at jpoto@stanford.edu.

  • Mobydubido

    and you applied to Stanford because…………?

  • Candid One

    Your last sentence:

    “The problem is that by choosing 40 legacy applicants every year as opposed to the 40 who would otherwise get those spots, we say to every single one of those “just as good” students that maybe they could’ve gotten into Stanford, if only they had been born with the correct, Stanford, upper-class accent.”

    Those first three words throw the light of sophistry on the rest of your verbosity. In five years, re-read this spate of arrogance. To extrapolate in kind, your pending degree level, BS, will be individually appropriate. Have a nice life, regardless of accent.

  • Guest

    First off, your statistics paragraph is a real pain to read. As an MS&E major, I’m surprised you haven’t learned how to effectively convey data to readers.

    “We can’t speak specifically…” —- Who is the “we” here?

    In general, you seem to assume that the only benefit of admitting legacies is financial. That is incorrect. Members of lineages often end up being most invested in Stanford. They host send-off parties, work for the Stanford Magazine, are die-hard fans of Stanford Athletics, and so on.

    I do not view a slightly higher admit rate for legacies as “severely compromising” our values.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Look guys, I get it you guys don’t like the piece. That being said, you took the time to comment telling me you cared about the subject enough to read the piece and engage. Why not actually offer some ideas on the topic rather than just dismissal. My aim was to start a discussion not to have a dick measuring contest.

  • Jonathan Poto

    I applied to great universities in general to train myself and provide experiences to have an impact on the world after graduation. I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Here’s some standalone pieces of data since you couldn’t handle a more complex string of logic.

    1) Legacies being admitted at 2 to 3 times the rate of non-legacies.

    Regardless of them generally having stronger applications (as a whole because of social status providing them resources to develop their personal skills prior to applying), that is still an extremely high number

    2) Removing legacy preference would not end legacy admission. It would simply reduce the number of legacy admits to its fair level, somewhere around 2x the total admit rate.

    That means you’d still have Stanford lineages to support activities such as send-off parties, working for Stanford organizations, etc… not that any of these activities at all depend on legacies to function.

    3) “The richest households are overrepresented by 43% at top colleges” says the Stanford Center for Education Policy

    This is in your response to the who is the “we”, when I say we can’t specifically tell the socioeconomic makeup of Stanford admits.

  • Jonathan Poto

    The point of that sentence is that our university not only has an influence on its own members, but has a greater social influence that it projects through its policies, especially when you consider that the admissions process is a process that directly affects students from all over the country who apply to Stanford. If you fail to see Stanford’s influence and responsibility within the larger social fabric, then of course you are going to entirely miss the point of my opinion piece.

  • neighbor

    Controlled legacy admissions make sense in a bigger picture. Stand back, and see it. Step back far enough to remove your prejudices, and you will see that each admit comes with more than what you are describing. This creates a class that both defines and remains a part of Stanford for their lives.

  • Sharon

    Hi Jonathan, I agree with you. There isn’t any real legitimate reason for preferential treatment to legacy candidates. The university has to admit that it privileges donations and perpetuating upper-class elitist culture (e.g. the XX family all went to Stanford, look how awesome they are) over genuine diversity, especially socio-economic. It’s also not necessarily the case that having legacy admits would create stronger loyalty to the school (leading to preferential opportunities and donations) over a class without that as the latter might find their values more in line with the institution’s and therefore be more willing to associate and identify with it.

    You’re part of a wider conversation too: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/evan-mandery/why-im-skipping-my-harvar_b_5246982.html

  • Stanford Alum


    I like the topic you brought up because it’s certainly one that merits discussion. I guess I’m a little surprised how few legacy admits Stanford has. If you’re suggesting the difference between the current number and your proposed number is only 40, then I would argue the difference is quite negligible considering how unpredictable the admissions process can be. My point is that your suggestion is certainly a step to ending legacy admissions, but the line you drew is arbitrary and the effect isn’t that significant (statistically or pragmatically); it’s more of a moral victory. Plus, I would also say that the students who are gifted enough to even be among the 2 or 3 people equally qualified for a spot at Stanford are probably going to be fine and be able to pursue lucrative careers should they choose to.

    I read the article in Stanford magazine about the second read that children of alumni get, but I’m not sure how much of an effect this has. Marissa Mayer’s son, when he applies, will certainly be evaluated differently than the child of an alum who is a high school chemistry teacher and has never donated any money to Stanford, for example. I don’t think a second read will necessarily help the second applicant.

    I guess my bigger point is that the top tier of applicants to Stanford are going to be fine regardless of a second read and that perhaps the bigger factor is socioeconomic status rather than legacy status. Perhaps it’s also worth seeing how legacy students perform compared to non-legacy students. The only problem I would have is if Stanford admitted students who weren’t able to handle the academic rigor of Stanford.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Dear Alum,

    Thank you for your well thought out critique. I look at the estimate number of 40 legacies that are admitted thanks to legacy preference and go the opposite direction, namely that the effect on the university in terms of losing a sense of “familial” reciprocity and support, is negligible. I definitely agree that ending double-reads and preferential treatment for legacies is a moral victory above all else, but that shouldn’t discount the importance of moral victories. Signaling that every student who gets into Stanford earned their position on their own right, and with no special advantage effects the mindset of the student body, who see themselves more as a unified body than one defined by class and privilege, and projects to the rest of the world that Stanford as a powerful institution is engaged with greater social needs, not just the needs of the Stanford-club. I believe that many Stanford students and alumni came to Stanford not solely to benefit themselves, but to benefit the larger world, and want all institutional practices, when not injurious to the university, that reflect that.


  • Jonathan Poto

    Thank you for your comment. Respectfully, I don’t think we need legacy preference to draw out all those qualities that an admit brings to the table, and I don’t think an approximate 20% reduction in the number of legacy applicants will damage the sense of community that stay with Stanford students the rest of their lives.

  • Okaywithlegacies

    I would disagree that 40 legacy students is negligible, since 40 involved families can make a huge difference in the broader Stanford community by putting a good face on the school, helping out with local events and fundraising, and more. Further, my immediate reaction to your thoughts about alumni children was that you approach the second-read and “replaceable” issue incorrectly.

    Stanford is very unlikely to let a legacy in that is entirely unqualified to be here. More likely, legacy status is simply a final push over the edge that makes one student stand out from another. If you put two admissions candidates with the exact same qualification side-by-side but one is black and one is white, you can bet the black student will be admitted every time. To many, this makes sense for diversity and perhaps affirmative actions. Why isn’t legacy status a similarly useful factor? It demonstrates that the student is very likely to come to Stanford (the admissions office loves matriculation rates) and, more importantly, very likely to bring with him or her a family that will be proud and involved in the school. Happy alumni is important for many reasons, and continued alumni involvement gives a place like Stanford the strong and durable culture that it has.

    At the margin, all things else held equal, legacy status is certainly a plus. You might disagree since you talk about concerns of plutocracy and a Stanford “class”; I get that and will have to agree to disagree. Given my identity (although not a Stanford legacy!) I’m simply not a class warrior and see nothing wrong with deserving students benefitting from their parents’ success. How different, after all, is the genetic lottery that determines intelligence and the lottery that determines your parents’ class?

  • Jonathan Poto

    Hi okaywithlegacies,

    Thanks for your input.

    I think when looking at what effect losing approx. 40 legacy applicants would look like, you have to also look at what the non-legacies bring to the table. As I point out, Stanford is bringing in an unbelievably talented group of people, who really really want to come to Stanford. I believe what they directly bring to the table, as well as expanding the size of the Stanford family (to the families of the 40 students who are also excited that their children are going to stanford) will make up for the benefits we lose from the 20% of legacies admitted thanks to legacy preference.

    I think you bring up a good point that I tried to bring out in my article that we need to look at our applications process holistically, and would say that strict affirmative action based solely on race is a discussion worth having. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea that racial background alone is a reason to pick any student over another. That being said, two wrongs don’t make a right, and we shouldn’t pick the child of an alumni since just as in the case of your race, you as the legacy applicant did nothing to earn that identity. Ultimately, I think our application process should do a better job rewarding students who endure extenuating circumstances, like not having a two parent home, being force to raise oneself and siblings, and starting programs in communities where resources are lacking for high school students to plug in to existing systems.

    I know from personal experiences that many low income first generation college students do not get into Stanford in spite of overcoming obstacles far greater than many people admitted (whether legacy or not) to Stanford. Furthermore, the ethnic breakdown of these students coming from such extenuating circumstances is overwhelmingly dominated by minorities. By recognizing these outstanding accomplishments that do not neatly fit into AP classes (which these students often don’t have at their schools), SAT scores (which are culturally and class biased), and grades, we would effectively still have racial affirmative action, but on a much more solid grounds than just “the genetic lottery”. Such a revisioning of our application system would lead be a catalyst ethnic, cultural, AND class diversity at Stanford, over first-impression color based “diversity”.

    Finally, I directly contradict what you are saying, about legacy preference not being plutocratic. Legacy preference is the definition of class hierarchy, privilege, and elitism, and the fact that our university currently indulges our alumni in protecting these unsound predilections damages our society as a whole.

  • Stanford Fan for Life

    Jonathan, most of the very top students tend to be from wealthier families (whether Stanford affiliated or not). So eliminating legacy preferences would be very unlikely to have any material impact on the economic diversity of Stanford’s undergraduates. Further, 95% of applicants are denied admission, so I don’t doubt that some talented underprivileged students are rejected every year (just as most legacy applicants are rejected). But my understanding is that overcoming adversity is considered a hook that is given more weight by the admissions office than legacy status. So I would be very surprised if legacy admits are taking spots from otherwise equally-qualified underprivileged students.

    Moreover, I’m not sure why you want to pick on legacies for their presumed wealth. Many of the top applicants to Stanford will have had tremendous financial benefits growing up – that top violinist may have had tens of thousands of dollars in private lessons (not to mention the cost of their violins), the top athlete may have traveled with expensive club sports teams and attended pricey elite sports camps, and that student that won the national science prize may have had special tutors and an internship at their mother’s hospital. And, of course, the international students (who largely have to pay their own way at Stanford) tend to be wealthy too.

    Ultimately, however, it’s not the resources made available to the student growing up, but the student’s passion that matters to admissions. Wealth does not necessarily inspire academic passion (in fact, it’s often the opposite). A student who attends Stanford will be given a tremendous amount of resources and the admissions office wants someone who will make good use of them. Legacy applicants, on the whole, tend to do so, not just in the four years they will be on campus, but throughout their lives. So I think it is reasonable to take that all into account to the small degree that Stanford apparently does, especially given that other top colleges have legacy preferences as well. It makes sense that admissions policies at these universities support students attending the schools where they have the closest connection and the greater probability of success.

  • Helen Kahn

    Isn’t this the same discussion/argument for Affirmative Action?? Admissions trying to get a wide variety of qualified/diverse students into its class? For example, was George W. Bush Affirmative Action or Legacy at Yale and Harvard?? You can find lots of examples… but why perpetuate those unnecessary standards when there is $$$lots in endowment

  • Jonathan Poto

    It’s an incredibly misinformed belief to say that legacy applicants are more likely to make good use of the tremendous amount of resources presented to them. We have an admit rate of 5% out of a pool of 42,000 competitive students. Therefore, almost all people who are applying to Stanford and seriously considered for admission by the admit readers are able to succeed here and give back to the university, both now and into the future.

  • Stanford Fan for Life

    You have an unreasonable concern about that 5% figure. The number of competitive high school students has not increased that much. The difference is that the competitive students are applying to more schools. If Stanford were the only university worth attending in the country I could buy your argument, but that is simply not the case. The odds of a top student getting into a great school has not changed significantly. Assume there is one spot available at each of the top 10 universities and 20 top students are applying for those 10 spots. If each student applies only to 1 university (unique from each other student), then their admission rate might be 50%. But if each of the 20 students applied to all 10, then the admission rate might be 5%. Are the spots for the top students less scarce in the second scenario? No. Neither is it a problem that needs to be solved by taking dramatic steps like eliminating legacy preferences (which every major college has, through decades of direct experience, determined to be of value). Stanford is doing the right things to help those who might be at a disadvantage by providing ample financial aid to those who need it and expanding its class size (in fact, it might be increasing significantly in the near future). You’ve offered no logical reason why all major universities could possibly have been mistaken in determining legacy students to be of value.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Hi Winston.

  • Jonathan Poto

    From 2008 to 2013, in spite of the number of Stanford applicants rising by 13,500, which should have diluted the quality of the pool of applicants, the average Stanford applicant SAT Critical Reasoning and Writing scores rose in that period, while Math stayed the same.


    2008 SAT Critical Reasoning – 43% (of applicants) scored 700-800
    2013 SAT Critical Reasoning – 45% scored 700-800

    2008 SAT Math – 60% scored 700-800
    2013 SAT Math – 60% scored 700-800

    2008 SAT Writing – 46% scored 700-800
    2013 SAT Writing – 47% scored 700-800

    You’re wrong that people applying to more schools therefore the quality of the average applicant has dropped. For Stanford, the opposite is true.

    You’re also wrong that every major university still has legacy preference. Cambridge, Oxford and MIT don’t have legacy preference. A recent article by The Guardian ranked MIT #2 above Stanford #3 in their 2014 global university rankings, just above Cambridge #4 and Oxford #5. I’m not saying these rankings are perfect, but clearly legacy preference isn’t a prerequisite to have a great university.

    I don’t have proof but what I believe is that Stanford is protecting legacy preference because many of its alumni believe that by getting in, staying connected, and contributing money, they’ve earned a p

  • Stanford Fan for Life

    Jonathan, you need to realize that you are writing for a major college newspaper, not posting on collegeconfidential. I understand your interest in defending your position, but please give this topic some careful thought before responding. Google can be a dangerous thing. You just picked two schools in the UK as the model you would like Stanford to follow. If you took a moment to study the history of social classes and education in that country you might come to regret that post.

    Also, I did not argue dilution. My point was, more students (of all quality) are applying to more schools. That has caused admission rates at all the top schools to drop dramatically in the last two decades. The number of top students has not changed to the same degree and the number of spots open to those students at those schools has actually increased.

    The phenomenon of students applying to more colleges should have caused yield rates to drop, but the schools have all managed this problem by adopting early action programs. More of the very top students already know where they are going before regular decisions are even made. If a good student fails to gain admission early action at their first choice, they know they face extremely low odds of being admitted at another school, so they apply to a large number of the top schools thinking they might get lucky at one of them. But odds are that these good (but not great) students will be denied by all those other schools too. (A 700 on one segment of the SAT, without more, wouldn’t do much.)

    In any event, your basic point (one frequently made) that admissions should be a meritocracy, is a compelling one. As someone else pointed out, it is the same argument that people have made against racial preferences. I disagree, but I certainly understand the frustration someone thinking they may have lost a spot to someone because a characteristic the other student was born into. My argument is that, taken in the aggregate, legacy preferences at the top universities tend to impact where these top students will go more than whether they will get into a top college at all. (There is one study that concludes to the contrary, but it is limited and flawed.) In any event, this is a factor that must be fully understood before forcing colleges to eliminate legacy preferences.

    Your argument that legacies have little or no value is less compelling. I’m willing to defer to the public statements of the admissions professionals who have spent their careers studying such things. The fact that MIT (like Cal Tech) does not have legacy admissions does not prove that such preferences have no value. MIT is a great school, but it’s also a tech school (with only about 100 humanities majors) and only about 21% female. I’m sure there are many ways in which its admissions objectives might have long differed from Stanford and its peers. If you are as passionate about this as you seem, perhaps valuing legacy admissions could be a topic of future research for you. We know Stanford is better at fundraising than schools like MIT, but there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. Unfortunately, I suspect relevant information will be very hard to come by as schools are very protective of the type of data that would be really needed for a thorough analysis.

  • Jonathan Poto

    By writing in the Stanford Daily by no means do I represent the views of the paper or the institution. This is an opinion piece.

    You’re point about early action is irrelevant to this discussion. It’s about the fairness of who gets accepted not when.

    And you’re doing a disservice to misrepresent my argument. I believe just like you that legacies do have a vital impact on campus. What I don’t believe is that 20% reduction in the number accepted as a result of removing legacy preference will have a negative impact however.

    If you’re going to respond to me, address my argument for what it is, not what you think it is.

  • Candid One

    JP, your pretense of having a viable grasp of “Stanford’s influence and responsibility within the larger social fabric” is silly. You’ve already shown that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • akiddoc

    I think the author drastically overestimates the effect of 2 readers per legacy application. There is no evidence that legacy admissions are enhanced by this procedure. What is enhanced is the relationship between the university and its alumni base. Alumni are now contributing 1 billion dollars a year to Stanford to enhance your education. As one of those alums, whose child was this year rejected by admissions, I understand why the school provides reassurance that nothing was overlooked. At the same time, friends who have worked in admissions say that there is seldom disagreement between the two readers.

    Even if a few legacies are admitted using their status as a tie breaker, it certainly will not dilute the quality of the student body or mean that those students have not earned their way into the school. Stanford could go to the second 2100 students and have an almost identical class due to the huge number of highly qualified applicants. Those 2100 have earned their right to go to a similar school. The arbitrary nature of who gets in with the current admit rate means that those who are at Stanford are both high achievers and lucky.

    The issue of admitting more students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is an interesting one, but remember that many legacies who are getting rejected vastly outperformed most of those students in high school. If you want to revamp the entire admission process at Stanford to no longer consider grades, standardized testing, or any other such metrics, you are unrealistic. Stanford already accepts many kids who have less impressive numbers but who are judged to have overcome their life circumstances.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Thanks Akiddoc for all the good points you made here that I’ll address one by one.

    I agree that legacy admissions increases that amount of fundraising from alumni each year. Legacy students come from families with longer histories of wealth as well as interest in Stanford boosting fundraising. But I’m demanding a policy change that will reduce legacy acceptance by only 20%. Our fundraising has doubled from approximately 0.5 billion in 2003 to 1 billion in 2013. With such a strong fundraising capacity as it stands, our endowment will be strong even if we eliminate legacy preference and slightly reduce excitement of some alumni to donate.

    But still, why do we need to eliminate it?

    On your point of 2 readers per application being insignificant, you contradict this by saying “I understand why the school provides reassurance that nothing was overlooked.” If there is a danger in something being overlooked with only one read then we should increase the capacity of our admissions office so it can give two reads to every application, rather than turn this deficiency into an opportunity to create a two-tiered, privilege based system. And this is clearly privilege as the Stanford degree as it stands is the most sought after undergraduate degree in the country, and we are giving a preference to families that already have benefited from gaining access to that degree.

    But why does it matter if we have a system that reinforces privilege?

    It affects our internal culture first and foremost. All legacy admits are aware of the possibility that they possibly would not have gotten in without legacy status, and for some of them, it creates a psychological strain they are force to navigate with for four years (and this happens to legacy applicants who would have gotten in without legacy preference!). All non-legacy admits are aware of the fact that they were lucky to get in, and would have been considered of lower value to the university vs. a similarly qualified legacy applicant, which for some creates a psychological strain that I am not really a part of the inner club of “Stanford”, and that I constantly have to prove my right to be here among the students with stronger lines of Stanford lineage and privilege. As a Stanford student, many of us are drawn into these internal and community debates about who belongs here whether than what we are trying to accomplish by being here.

    It also projects to the outside world that we prioritize our own interests first, and are interested in perpetuating elitism rather than the greater problems science, technology, and education have the power to solve.

    But it is already an arbitrary process of who gets in, so who cares if we give equally qualified legacy applicants a boost?

    First your use of the negative word arbitrary suggests a notion that our admissions personnel are making erroneous decisions, when in fact they are making the best decisions they can given limited resources. I think the phrase willful and indiscriminate selection is a better, more neutral term.

    Simply, willful and indiscriminate selection given an equal evaluation process is much more in line with fairness, non-elitism, and non-divisivness than is to use legacy preference as a defining tiebreaker.

    But Stanford already factors in extenuating life circumstances, and we shouldn’t move away from standardized testing, grades, etc. to identify the best students?

    I believe you overestimate the amount of emphasis Stanford places on extenuating characteristics and life circumstances, given the lack of socioeconomic diversity at Stanford. On paper, Stanford does a good job, claiming to factor in Personal Context as one of their three umbrella criteria for undergrad acceptance (Academic Excellence and Intellectual Vitality being the other two). However, the numerical stats on who is getting accepted tell a story that socioeconomic diversity is still lacking. 3094 out of 6999 students (44%) received full scholarships (including Federal Student Aid jobs) in 2013. I know from my own personal experience receiving financial aid and then having it reduced as my parent’s income rose that the family income cutoff for full-rides is around $85,000 (this figure varies slightly by number of dependents, cost of living, etc). This means that about 56% of students are coming from income brackets above $85,000, a group which represents only 27% of American families. This is a fairly stark contrast, that I don’t believe is solely explained by upper income kids being more prepared than lower income students. Of all my points, this is one I would be willing to concede needs more study, as those numbers are not 100% infallible.

    I think you do a good job drawing out the interesting points of debate and I hope I’ve presented the other side strongly. But really, this is the best response I’ve heard in defense of legacy preference, so I think these are a lot of the best points worth discussing going forward.

    Endowment Growth

    Stanford Financial Aid Stats

    Average US Household Income

  • Winston Shi

    Nope, not me. Thanks for thinking of yours truly though.

  • akiddoc

    Unfortunately, I think you are incorrect in thinking that a significant percentage of lower income students are well prepared for college in this country. There are numerous articles documenting the lack of preparedness among children in poverty, easily googled. The lack of socioeconomic diversity on campus in no way shows that Stanford is trying to exclude students who grow up in those circumstances. What it documents is the difficulty children have in rising out of those circumstances to become functional in a college environment.

    I am a pediatrician, and I work in an area where I see large numbers of lower income families. I also do a lot of volunteer work for an institution that cares solely for low income children. In 30 years, I have watched 6,000 low income children turn 18, and of those who graduated from high school, maybe 5 could have survived at a higher echelon school like Stanford. For example, one kid currently at Cal was second in his high school class, had a 1780 SAT, no extracurriculars, but has done okay at UC (3.0). He probably would have gotten through Stanford. Another was first in his class, 2080 SAT, no extracurriculars, and attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. None of these kids had my daughter’s resume, none of them were within 200 points of her SAT scores, and none were as prepared for a top college in the way she was, not that they had the opportunities that she had. I am not arguing that she should have been admitted, even though I know that some of the kids who were admitted were not as prepared as she was. I am arguing that you do not realize that none of the admitted legacies are lesser students or undeserving of admission. Stanford rejects kids with 2400 SAT’s who are legacies. Stanford rejects kids who have published papers in major medical journals who are legacies. Kids with 10 AP courses and 5’s in each course who are legacies are rejected. I know of plenty of similar cases from my alumni peers. The depth of the applicant pool is stunning.

    If Stanford students are wasting their time arguing about who should have gotten in or who shouldn’t have, their concerns would be better spent worrying about athletes getting in with 1550 SAT’s and 3.2 GPA’s. They might be spending 20 hours a week on their sport throughout high school, but why is that worth more than 20 hours on a musical instrument or 20 hours doing medical research?

    I know you will object to the inclusion of SAT scores, but the research showing college grades being poorly forecast by SAT scores is generally within single colleges, meaning the range of SAT scores is narrow – say 2100 to 2400 at most Ivies. If you compare 2200 to 1700, the research shows that there is strong predictive value. As far as the SAT being culturally biased – well, my daughter is African American, so I guess she didn’t find that to be an impediment.

  • Jonathan Poto

    1. I’m sorry your daughter didn’t get in. She sounds like she would have belonged and excelled here.

    2. I’m not advocating for doing away with SAT and grades focused testing in favor of a more holistic criteria. My first and foremost focus is on legacy preference. But since we’re comparing individual cases, I can point out to students I know from disadvantaged backgrounds (homeless during youth, living with a foster mom), with excellent GPAs, solid SATs (within your stated 2100 and above range), and community leaders in their free time (winning grants to start organizations to help other people of color navigate various circumstances), who were also denied by Stanford. Should the people I know have been accepted to Stanford? Maybe, maybe not. Would they have been less prepared for Stanford than your daughter? Slightly, thanks to poorer quality classes, and less cultural capital to draw upon in a very foreign environment such as Stanford’s. Should they be given a slight boost for their extreme circumstances.. probably. Should your daughter get a boost for being your progeny and for being more prepared to “survive” Stanford? No, because the kids I’m describing will absolutely overcome their slight disadvantages, unlike the kids you’re describing who are all victims of their circumstance unable to succeed.

    3. Athlete’s standards for acceptance are a worthwhile discussion, but legacy preference should be . The reason I pick legacy preference to focus on is that this advantage in admissions is based solely on built-in advantage that is unlinked to the development of the student.

    Best of luck to your daughter.

  • Food for thought

    If you do not feel that legacy admittance is a part of the Stanford fabric, then by your logic, one must also do away with all “other” preferences such as gender, cultural ethnicity, sex, first gen, and etc. that give the application special treatment. If equality is what you aspire to when reviewing applications, then the application should not inquire about each applicant’s background. You can’t pick and choose only those aspects that you are specifically committed to.

    I personally see the benefit of having legacies admitted to. Stanford. Commitment to giving, family involvement, volunteerism, and pride are just a few aspects that occur when a family is “all in” when supporting their school. Of course, that legacy has to meet the demanding requirements of admission first and foremost.

    I am all for having these aspects of one’s background given consideration when applying to Stanford! Oh how dull a university would be without those wonderfully diverse designations!

  • Jonathan Poto

    That’s not my logic at all. I’m advocating for removing a piece of the applications process that measures people based on their family lineage. Accepting people based on their Stanford lineage leads to a more homogeneous campus, by reducing the number of families that are a part of our tradition and creating a barrier to racial, economic, and cultural diversity that would occur if not for this special consideration.

    In other words having all of one race, gender, or economic class would make the campus dull, while eliminating the 20% of legacy admissions that is a result of legacy preference would make the campus more diverse, exciting, and effective, without hindering the “Commitment to giving, family involvement, volunteerism, and pride” that comes with building a relationship with our alumni. What you want is special treatment for your family even though there is no legal responsibility on your end to actually meet any of these benefits that alumni provide. To say that the families that would join the Stanford family as a result of eliminating legacy preference would not be capable of providing this alumni support to our campus if they got in as opposed to your son or daughter is ridiculous.

  • Numnuts

    You assume that the legacies being admitted are not diverse.

  • Jonathan Poto

    It’s a fact that legacy preference reduces the number of individual families that are brought into the Stanford family, since legacy preference by definition prefers applicant from Stanford’s own ranks.

    It’s also a fact that legacy admits are a higher income than non legacies as a whole.

    Combine that and you’ll understand my point.

  • akiddoc

    I guess we’ll have to end in disagreement here. I have not seen any evidence that there is a true advantage in admissions for legacies. Maybe the Arrillaga kids had an advantage. That wouldn’t be a surprise. But for the usual legacy, you don’t get in without extraordinary achievement. You side-stepped my rebuttal of your assumption that there are legacies on campus who do not deserve to be there.

    And yes, my daughter will in fact be at one of the top colleges in the country.

  • Pau La

    @Candid One: your arguments are entirely based on ad hominem fallacies and it seems to me that the awkward use of uncommon words is intended to cloud the weakness of your argument. I do know Plato’s piece about the sophists and I do not see how his sentence has anything to do with sophistry. Your entire argument boils down to “you’re arrogant and stupid, so shut up”

  • Pau La

    Hi Jonathan,

    I like your article and usually I’m all for giving underprivileged students better opportunities. However, I think you’re being very critical here. Stanford does a great deal of helping underprivileged students attend this school and I believe extenuating circumstances are a plus for admission committees. If I imagine to be an admissions officer having a 3.9 GPA student who has rich parents who were able to afford SAT camps and private tutors and compare her to a 3.7 GPA student who may be of indigenous ancestry, faced racism all her life, took care of her 4 siblings and still managed to do great in school, I would assume the latter student has greater potential.

    I think the legacy admit rate you mentioned isn’t too bad and what you don’t consider is that admitting legacies or otherwise financially privileged students brings some advantages to underprivileged students, as well. I, myself, for example, do not have any financial resources available to me and if Stanford wasn’t offering me a full scholarship, I would not be able to attend. You mentioned in another comment that Stanford has strong fundraising even without legacies. Yet, what you don’t consider is that if all students at Stanford had to rely on financial aid, each one would get a smaller endowment. Before I got my admission e-mail from Stanford, the only other Ivy League school that admitted me was Columbia and I cried several nights because I knew I would be forever in debt, had I gone there. They offered me a $25000 scholarship but the cost of attendance is around $80000. Those $25000 included loans, as well. If Stanford didn’t admit any students who can pay their expenses themselves, I would have probably had the same dilemma. Therefore, I’m glad there are legacies because it simply doesn’t work without them.

  • Jonathan Poto

    You’re overemphasizing my desire to see higher levels of economic diversity. At core, I’m concerned about fairness in the best students getting in. Our admissions process has a number of good metrics it uses such as SAT scores, grades, and considerations of personal achievements/overcoming that together are a great basis for making a determination of which students to select. Legacy preference greatly weakens the integrity of this process by adding another factor that has nothing to do with the student’s personal choices, efforts, activities, and individuality. Legacy status is an socially constructed identity, not an actual basis of definition of self actualization that a university should select on.

    And if you hadn’t have gotten into Stanford if back then we didn’t consider legacy status, you would’ve been faced with a situation that millions of other Americans have faced, not one that was uniquely and unfairly bestowed upon you. I would’ve felt bad for you, but I wouldn’t have seen the process as unfair. Your legacy status doesn’t exempt you from the possibility of having to take on debt to go to college, or having to go to a lower cost state school, or transferring out of a 2-year community college. The belief that their should be a privilege tied to an unearned social definition is wrong.

  • Pau La

    I actually do transfer from a community college and it was a great experience. I would have never considered applying to Stanford if I hadn’t gotten the inspiration at a community college. It’s true that many other schools don’t offer such generous scholarship endowments and that many students are in debt. Personally, I would do away with any sort of tuition like they do in Germany, for example. Unfortunately, however, these sky-high tuitions are ingrained in the US university structure and I am afraid they are not going to go away in the near future. Stanford and other top universities such as Harvard and Yale are very progressive in offering full tuition to underprivileged students in order to admit the brightest students in the country and not the richest like most other universities do. You noted that I am overemphasizing the importance of financial incentives, yet this a major discussion point when we talk about Stanford. Yes, there may be a poor chemistry teacher alum but I concur, this is probably anecdotal evidence. After all, this is Stanford, we are talking about and I am willing to bet that the majority of alumnae are going to be financially well-off. Giving the children of alumnae a second read has a financial incentive that benefits other students, as well.

  • Pau La

    You’re forgetting that having a 20% legacy rate means that we have an 80% non-legacy rate. For every alum that Stanford lets in, there are 4 students that have no tie to Stanford whatsoever. Even if, hypothetically speaking, 2 out of 10 admitted students were white, male, straight, Christian, etc. because they are legacies, 8 out of 10 students can bring diversity to the table. Now, at some point, this class of 80% diverse students will be alumnae and so the 20% legacies will be 80% diverse. So, in the future about 4% of the admitted students would not be diverse. This was hypothetical of course, because we know that Stanford University has always prided itself on being diverse, the very first class of alumnae including women. So, you can bet that whatever alumnae we have are already pretty mixed up. The only part about Stanford’s alumnae that should not be diverse is their income and let’s be honest, you can’t really avoid rich kids getting into the top schools because there are numerous studies indicating that children who are financially well-off do better in school.

  • Pau La

    Also, why are you getting so aggressive with people who disagree with you? It’s not a contest.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Because I feel I can address these points and because it just keeps pushing the article up on google.

  • marie

    My gripe is not against the legacy students, but against the athletic recruits. They definitely bring down the quality of the applicant pool. Especially, the ones that sit on the bench for four years, and add no value to the school. Recruits can get in with an 1800 SAT which means no hook applicants have to have 2350 plus. At least legacies’ SATs are higher than the score average.

  • Eliminating this kind of thing might become helpful in Stanford and might be able to give them more information and more benefit on their school and on their students. It’s a good thing that they have done this one.