Just Admissions Rethinks College Policy

By Hope Anderson ’22

Staff Writer

Just Admissions is a student group advocating for a legacy blind admissions policy at Davidson.

According to Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade, being a legacy applicant at an elite college or university is equivalent to adding 160 points to your SAT score. 

Some Davidson students want to change that reality.

Legacy preference is the advantage an office of admissions gives applicants who have at least one alumnus parent. Emma Tayloe ‘19 thinks this edge is an “illogical adherence to tradition.” 

Tayloe — a legacy student herself — is a leader in Just Admissions, a student movement advocating for a legacy blind admissions policy at Davidson. Just Admissions, as well as similar groups at schools across the country, sees legacy preference as an issue of both fairness and campus diversity.

Since Davidson did not admit students of color until the 1960s, the vast majority of Davidson alumni are white. Thus, the advantages enjoyed by legacies do not apply equally to all groups of applicants.

“By giving an advantage to a population that’s more likely to be white, more likely to be wealthy, and more likely to be otherwise privileged, it seems like an intuitively and frankly kind of obviously unfair standard,” said Tayloe.

According to Espenshade, top schools admit legacy students at around three times the rate of non-legacies. Christopher Gruber, Dean of Admissions, said in an email last year that for Davidson, that number is around two.

Julia Bainum ‘21, another student involved in Just Admissions, agreed with Tayloe, and she added that prioritizing legacy students is superfluous, since students with college-educated parents already enjoy advantages throughout the college application process.

“It makes me angry that I had all of these things to make the college process easier, compared to somebody who doesn’t have parents who have gone through it before and was more worried about financial aid, and then on top of that I think it might be easier for me to get into a school that I want to go to,” said Bainum.  

One of the most common arguments in favor of legacy preference is that it increases alumni donations, which can then be used to fund things like scholarships for lower income students. However, the link between legacy preference and alumni donation is “remarkably thin,” according to Richard D. Kahlenberg in his 2010 book Affirmative Action for the Rich. 

A study detailed in the same book found that, controlling for endowment size, schools with legacy preference receive on average no greater amount of alumni donations. The study also noted that schools without legacy preference in recent years have so far seen “no short term measurable reduction in alumni giving.” Of the world’s top ten schools, four — Caltech, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, and Oxford — do not employ legacy preference. 

Other arguments in favor of legacy preference cite the intangible ways in which it builds community. 

“Family is important at Davidson,” said Gruber in the same email.

Ultimately, Tayloe believes the burden of proof for the merit of legacy preference is on the Office of Admissions and the Board of Trustees. “If they want to keep it, they should have to prove how it helps the school,” said Tayloe.

Maia Harrell ‘20 is one of a handful of African-American legacy students currently at Davidson. She thinks legacy should be considered in a student’s application, but only as a minor factor. 

Harrell is in her second year as a hall counselor. She thinks being a legacy can actually improve a student’s first year college experience. 

“Those particular students were more prepared for Davidson than their non-legacy counterparts,” said Harrell. 

Harrell’s mother, Janet Stovall, graduated from Davidson in 1985. Stovall understands the ways legacy preference can hurt students of color. However, she also thinks that the practice can help them feel more included in an unfamiliar environment.

“Most traditionally underrepresented groups are just a few generations in on college, with little entrenchment in spaces such as Davidson,” said Stovall in an email. “In light of this, who could be better equipped than a legacy to navigate such spaces? If legacy admissions could evolve from perpetuating exclusion to advancing inclusion, then I can see a place for them.”

Right now, Just Admissions is working on a student petition calling for Davidson to become legacy blind. If the petition and a subsequent referendum get enough support, the Board of Trustees will be required to issue a response.

Tayloe noted that such a major policy change will likely have to be supported by either the Office of Admissions or the college President before being approved by the Board.

Tayloe and Bainum both emphasized that ending legacy preference does not mean legacy students cannot come to Davidson. 

“Something I’ve heard as justification for [legacy preference] is that ‘if you’re raised by somebody who went to our school, you were taught these values that are important to our school,’” said Bainum. “A person who is a legacy is going to have these values regardless. That would come through, hopefully, if the application is doing its job.”

Sources:

Affirmative Action for the Rich: introduction 

Affirmative Action for the Rich: chapter 5

Study by Thomas Espenshade

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