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Growing Up in Weston, MA - A Middle-Class Student’s Perspective on Legacy Admissions

June 6, 2024
By Chayanne Barrientos

Growing Up in Weston, MA - A Middle-Class Student’s Perspective on Legacy Admissions
Abstract: Chayanne Barrientos, a uAspire policy fellow for spring 2024, selected legacy admissions as her final project for the MA Policy Fellowship. Her advocacy piece, which explores the discriminatory nature of legacy admissions and proposes policy recommendations for change, reflects her dedication to improving the student experience and promoting equity in higher education. 

Growing up in Weston, Massachusetts, was a peculiar experience. Weston is known for its affluence, top-tier schools, and beautiful landscapes. However, my family didn’t quite fit the mold of your typical Weston resident. We were considered middle class in a place where wealth was the norm, and opportunities seemed abundant– at least for some. 

When it came around for college applications, as a student, I witnessed a stark disparity when it came to college admissions. This was particularly noticeable when it came to prestigious colleges and Ivy League universities. Many of my peers seemed to have a golden ticket to Ivy League schools, and trust me, it wasn’t because of extraordinary talent or hard work, but merely because their parents had attended these institutions. 

That’s when it hit me—the reality of legacy admissions. 

Legacy admissions give preferential treatment to applicants who have family members who are alumni of the institution. This practice is prevalent in elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. You know, the ones that are extremely difficult for your average student to be admitted to. According to a 2019 study by Harvard researchers, legacy applicants are more than five times more likely to be admitted to top schools than non-legacy applicants. This practice is often unrelated to the applicant's merit but rather their individual family connections. To most people, this is a problem, so why haven’t these practices been stopped? The impact of legacy admissions goes far beyond and is profound. To put simply, the perpetuation of legacy admissions leads to many problems for future generations to come. 

First, the direct perpetuation of inequality reinforces socioeconomic disparities. Wealthy families who have historically had access to elite education continue to secure these advantages for their descendants, creating a cycle where only a few lineages have the opportunity to attend prestigious universities based on legacy. Moreover, students from low, middle-class, and/or minority backgrounds, like myself, have significantly lower odds of being admitted to these schools. Despite hard work and comparable achievements, we are competing on an uneven playing field. 

Consequently, access to Ivy League education often translates to higher earning income potential and networks. By limiting this access to the children of alumni, legacy admissions help concentrate wealth and power within the same groups of families. This leaves other deserving students with a disadvantage in generating wealth and creating a better future for themselves. 

The unfairness of legacy admissions is cut and dry. No student should be admitted simply because of their family connections. In the same way, students who meet or exceed the academic qualifications required to attend top universities should not be five times less likely to be admitted because they do not have those same family connections. Something has to change, and that is why bills like S821/H1282 aim to eliminate legacy preferences. Changing this practice is crucial to creating a fair process that evaluates students based on what actually matters. 

Growing up in  Weston, I've witnessed the injustices of legacy admissions firsthand. It’s a discriminatory practice that impedes social mobility and perpetuates wealth inequality. Eradicating legacy admissions is a stride towards a more just education system. It’s high time we dismantle this archaic system to ensure that every student, irrespective of their background, has an equal opportunity to chase their aspirations.