Amherst College is one of the latest schools to end its use of legacy admissions preferences. Photo: HantongWu/shutterstock

Last August, Harvard announced that it would no longer solicit or accept gifts from donors who are known to have a family member applying for admission. The catch? Harvard would continue to prioritize applicants based on their familial relationship with alumni.

If administrators thought they swept the legacy admissions question under the rug, they were mistaken. This fall, a group of young alumni from Harvard as well as Princeton, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth launched the Leave Your Legacy initiative, pledging to withhold donations to their alma maters unless they eliminated the practice.

Then, in late October, Amherst College announced it was ending legacy preferences. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, called the move “surprising” and “significant,” since Amherst, as an elite liberal arts school, is among “the institutions that are most likely to use legacy preferences.”

The growing calls to abolish legacy preferences tie together two key pieces of conventional wisdom about higher ed fundraising. The first involves demographics. The fact that millennial and Generation Z alumni are leading the charge to end legacy admissions comports with fundraisers’ recognition that younger donors are more attuned to issues of equity than previous generations. At the same time, few readers will dispute the contention that colleges “tend to believe that giving legacy applicants an edge helps them bring in alumni donations,” as Joe Pinsker put it in The Atlantic.

In effect, development officers often find themselves weighing the impact of boycotts by younger alumni with the possibility that older and more affluent donors will pull their support if administrators eliminate the practice. All the while, university endowments—including Amherst’s—have swelled to historic highs, enabling schools to withstand a potential fundraising hit should older donors jump ship.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s begin by getting a handle on the prevalence of the legacy admissions practice and why universities just can’t seem to quit it.

Follow the money

For years, higher ed experts argued that it’s a problem when an applicant gets preferential treatment when, say, his alumnus father happened to make a big donation six years ago. “It’s a thumb on the scale for already disadvantaged kids,” said Susan Dynarksi, a professor of education at Harvard, ironically enough. “If you think of affirmative action as an effort to undo past injustices, legacy preferences do the opposite. They reinforce privilege and intensify inequality.”

The practice is also more widespread than you may think. In 2019, about 48% of colleges and universities considered legacy in their admission decisions, down from 58% in 2004, according to Peterson’s College Guide. “Today, about three-quarters of the country’s most selective colleges consider applicants’ legacy status in admissions,” wrote Rebecca Ostriker in the Boston Globe in late September.

Given universities’ opaque admissions processes, it’s difficult to know how donations factor into decision-making. That said, every now and then, someone pulls back the curtain. For instance, Dan Lee, a co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting, told the Daily Princetonian last year that officials at top universities, including Princeton, rank their legacy applicants and prioritize children whose parents contributed more time or money to their alma mater over those who gave less.

This is why the Leave Your Legacy initiative is so compelling. It’s premised on the idea that administrators will end legacy preferences once the practice becomes a fundraising liability. “It’s inherently unjust,” the initiative’s founder, Viet Nguyen, told Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed. “It’s a process based solely on lineage.”

A call to boycott donations

Nguyen learned about the practice after discovering that Brown University considered applicants’ legacy status. He graduated from Brown in 2017, but his discomfort didn’t abate. Nguyen co-founded Leave Your Legacy with the EdMobilizer coalition, an advocacy group for first-generation and low-income students.

Signatories pledge to withhold donations until their alma maters “get rid of legacy admissions, a system designed to exacerbate inequality for higher education.” The boycott will adopt tactics from the world of political activism, using social media and web-based tools to expand alumni networks and lobby university officials. As of early October 27, 587 people have signed the pledge.

In response, Brown spokesman Brian E. Clark said, “At Brown, children of alumni are reviewed like all other aspirants—one case at a time—and admitting children of alumni does not affect access for first-generation and low-income students.” He noted that in Brown’s class of 2025, 15% of students are first-generation, 48% are students of color and 10% are children of alumni.

Clark referenced a 2018 op-ed defending the practice in the Brown Daily Herald by the university’s Dean of Admission Logan Powell. “So why do we also pay attention to whether an applicant is a child of a Brown alum? Many of these students grew up immersed in the values of Brown,” Powell wrote. “They are often mentors and guides to other students in navigating the university.” Powell, to his credit, also addressed the elephant in the room, writing, “and yes, they [Brown alumni] also support Brown’s priorities financially, though this is not the focus.”

On October 7, Brown’s student newspaper, the Daily Herald, published an editorial by Kate Dario of Students for Education Equity calling on the school to end the practice. Citing Leave Your Legacy, Dario wrote that “ending legacy preference in the admission process is a crucial step in making the university a more equitable and accessible place.”

The demographic divide

It’s instructive—but not all that surprising—that the movement to end legacy admissions is being led by a younger cohort, including current students, Nguyen, and the millennial-heavy EdMobilizer leadership team. As we’ve often reported, millennial and Generation Z donors are often more attuned to inequality and social justice than their baby boomer and silent generation predecessors. And therein lies the dilemma that keeps administrators up at night.

Ending legacy preferences, the assumption goes, may satisfy younger donors, but could compel older and more affluent alumni to withhold donations. It “remains unclear whether colleges are open to change, and whether the campaign will gain traction among many alumni, who may feel reluctant to take a potential benefit away from their own children,” wrote Ostriker in the Boston Globe.

But an even more salient question is which subset of alumni backs the boycott. Nguyen told Inside Higher Ed’s Jaschik that he hopes some wealthier donors will join the campaign. That’s a pretty big leap of faith. I find it difficult to imagine an older millionaire alumnus, much less an Eric Schmidt (Princeton) or Melinda French Gates (Duke) indicting their alma mater for perpetuating inequality after years of intimate dinners, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and tennis matches with trustees.

Instead, let’s assume the campaign’s target audience of mostly younger donors signs up en masse. In response, a handful of universities drop legacy admissions, forcing older and wealthier alumni to close their checkbooks. Can support from newly engaged younger donors close the gap in the short-term? It’s doubtful.

Millennials and Generation Z alumni have less disposable income, higher housing costs, and—you knew this was coming—far more student loan debt than their parents. This point isn’t lost on Nguyen, who “acknowledges that not many young alumni or students donate gifts of the size that a development office would necessarily notice if a gift wasn’t made,” wrote Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed.

Fundraising trade-offs

I suspect Nguyen also understands that younger donors will soon be on the receiving end of the greatest intergenerational wealth transfer in history. By doing away with legacy admissions now, universities can lay the groundwork for future giving from that younger cohort as they come into wealth. But this premise hinges on the notion that these donors will feel inclined to support their alma maters with so many other pressing causes clamoring for their attention. This is far from a sure thing.

Research suggests that when millennials do reach for their checkbooks, it’s usually to support organizations in fields like education, civil rights and activism, and the environment. They tend to champion causes and movements, rather than single institutions, and take a broad view of how to advance the causes they care about. Having enjoyed a comfortable residential experience at college (some of them, at any rate), young alumni often conclude that their wealthy alma maters do not need their support as much as undercapitalized front-line nonprofits.

Barring a profound and unexpected psychographic shift, universities may not be a natural fit for millennials or Generation Z alumni looking to give back—now or in 10 years.

This explains why administrators think twice before ending legacy admissions and antagonizing older “top-of-the-pyramid” donors who have become even more wealthy and integral to universities’ fundraising machinery during the past 18 months. It’s far more efficient to cultivate a $2 million gift from a baby boomer alumnus with a son in middle school than to try and make up the difference with hundreds of smaller gifts from younger graduates.

Amherst goes there

If we accept these fundraising and demographic realities, then it would seem that Leave Your Legacy has a pretty steep hill to climb. But in late October, Nguyen and his colleagues received some good news.

“Now is the time to end this historic program that inadvertently limits educational opportunity by granting a preference to those whose parents are graduates of the college,” announced Amherst President Biddy Martin. “We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status.”

Just as importantly, Amherst administrators considered the fundraising impact of eliminating legacy admissions and concluded it was worth the risk. A FAQ on its site posited the question “How will the change affect alumni giving?” Here’s the full response:

“We are confident that this is the right decision for the college and that it boldly positions us as a leader for the next 200 years. Amherst’s commitment to educational access is a point of pride for many of our alumni and families, and almost half of our alumni help fund financial aid and scholarships by giving to the Amherst Fund each year. We studied and debated this decision carefully before moving forward; ultimately, we believe that ending the legacy preference will have a significant positive impact on the college’s ability to deliver on its mission of opportunity and accessibility. We anticipate that this commitment to our mission will resonate with many alumni.”

You’ll note that Amherst doesn’t explicitly say if it expects alumni giving will go up or down, or if leaders directly posed the issue to alumni givers (although I’d like to think they did). Instead, the response flips the conventional wisdom: Alumni “will”—notice the verb is in the future tense—actually reward the school for the policy change.

Ballooning endowments

Despite this announcement, conventional wisdom suggests that had a dozen or so affluent alumni locked administrators in a room and held them hostage—figuratively speaking—Amherst may have kept legacy preferences on the books.

But then again, maybe not. As of June 30, 2019, Amherst’s endowment stood at $2.47 billion. Now, the figure is $3.8 billion—a 54% increase. While these earnings are paper profits that remain illiquid until assets are sold, schools typically draw 4% to 6% from their endowments for operating budgets every year.

In Amherst’s case, its annual endowment spend rate has hovered around 4.6%, which means it will draw $138 million, which administrators can use for things like professorships, research and development, and financial aid. (To put this figure in perspective, Amherst’s Alumni Fund raised $10.1 million in 2020.)

Of course, we have no idea if any top-of-the-pyramid alumni donors rescinded their pledges because of the policy change. But if they did, $138 million sure helps to soften the blow.

Amherst “acknowledged that its deep financial resources, including an endowment of nearly $3.8 billion, allowed it to make this decision” to end legacy preferences, wrote Jacey Fortin in the New York Times. “We are doing what we’re doing because we can and because we should,” said President Biddy Martin. (Amherst also expanded financial aid for students from low- and middle-class families.)

Many schools are in an equally flush situation. The fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2021 was a “standout investment year for universities, the best since the mid-1980s,” wrote Larry Edelman in the Boston Globe. In a similar analysis in the New York Times, Stephen Gandel noted “eye-popping” returns for three schools that consider legacy status in the admissions process—Dartmouth (47%), Duke (56%) and Harvard (a “mere 34%.”)

Many of these schools reaped their windfalls thanks to risky private equity investments. But universities that put their money into index funds didn’t do too shabby, either, since the S&P 500 was up roughly 40% in the 12 months preceding June 2021.

Strength in numbers

You’ll recall that I began this piece talking about Harvard’s new gift policy—that it would longer solicit or accept gifts from donors with family members applying to get in. It’s worth noting that Harvard didn’t proactively review the policy in the spirit of utilitarian transparency. Instead, it launched the exercise in response to concerns about its ties to Jeffrey Epstein, a U.S. Department of Education investigation into whether it failed to fully report all foreign gifts, and a lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions revealing that familial donations appeared to boost applicants’ chances of admission.

Beyond universities’ prodigious endowment returns—which, to borrow a phrase, “aren’t indicative of future results”—a similar confluence of external forces may incentivize schools to eventually abandon legacy preferences.

If the Supreme Court takes the Harvard affirmative action case and bans the use of race in admissions, “colleges will look for new ways to promote racial diversity indirectly,” said Kahlenberg at the Century Foundation. “Legacy preferences—which now tend to benefit wealthy and white applicants—are likely to be one of the first things on the chopping block.”

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that future prospects—also known as “current students”—repudiate the practice. In addition to Brown’s Daily Herald, student newspapers at Dartmouth, Duke and Harvard, plus a student-led coalition at Georgetown, have all called on administrators to end the policy. Tarun Timalsina’s piece in the Harvard Crimson went live on October 25 and explicitly cited Amherst’s decision.

Then there’s the Leave Your Legacy campaign. As we’ve seen, Nguyen understands that younger alumni don’t have the financial leverage to force administrators’ hands just yet. But as Jaschik put it, Nguyen ultimately believes that “if enough donors join, even if they are small donors, colleges will notice and care.” In the meantime, Leave Your Legacy reps are reaching out to the boards of other private colleges with legacy admissions to brief them about Amherst’s decision. “This can be done,” Nguyen said.