Legacy admissions at Tufts from a sociological perspective

Bendetson Hall, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, is pictured on Feb. 28, 2018. Vintus Okonkwo / The Tufts Daily Archives

Last December, a Boston Globe editorial argued that the time has come for colleges and universities to end legacy admissions. Admissions policies favoring the children of alumni have faced increasing scrutiny over the past decade, yet only a few, notably Johns Hopkins University, have eliminated them. 

Tufts is a university that continues to practice legacy preference in admissions.

In an email to the Tufts Daily, Joseph “JT” Duck, dean of admissions, explained Tufts’ current policy.

Tufts practices holistic review, which means that admissions officers consider a large array of factors when considering whether to admit an applicant, according to Duck.

No student is admitted to Tufts because they have a family connection to the university,” Duck wrote.

Tufts does allow applicants to list any close family members — parents, siblings and grandparents — who are alumni of Tufts. And family connections can make a difference.

“It’s when our Admissions Committee is making tough decisions about similarly competitive applicants from similar contextual backgrounds that we would give some consideration to a family connection to the university, with strongest attention paid to a parent connection,” Duck wrote.

When two applicants are similar in regard to academics and extracurricular activities, the student with a family connection to Tufts may receive admissions over the student without such a connection.

Duck understands and appreciates alumni loyalty, but does not base admission decisions solely on that factor.

“Because of our highly selective holistic and contextual application review process, every year there are applicants with family ties to Tufts who are not admitted,” Duck wrote. “Those families, who typically have deep affection for Tufts, are understandably disappointed. Although we appreciate their loyalty to the institution, we are confident that our admissions process enables us to make the most appropriate decisions on each and every application for admission in each year’s pool.”

According to Helen Marrow, a sociology professor at Tufts who specializes in inequality, immigration, race and ethnicity, legacy admissions are often debated in practice. 

“Legacy students at [elite] schools are more likely to be wealthy and white than non-legacy students, so the very existence of legacy preference limits some access for high achieving low- and middle-income students, and also for African American, Latino and Native American students,” Marrow said.

This is not to say that individual legacy students don’t deserve their place at Tufts or other elite schools.

“We are not laying blame on individual people for their positions in these structures, but nonetheless we have to understand how the structures work,” Marrow said.

Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts whose work focuses on racial and ethnic inequality in education, echoed Marrow’s sentiment. 

“I think there’s an assumption that all students who are legacies would not have gotten in if they were not legacies,” Warikoo said. “And that’s clearly not true.” 

Warikoo recently published an article in The Atlantic titled “The Easiest Reform for College Admissions,” arguing that all selective schools should eliminate legacy preference in admissions.

Warikoo has studied the case of Johns Hopkins, which ended legacy preference in 2014 and recently published results for how the policy change affected their school. Hopkins found that the number of legacy students admitted to their school decreased and that the number of Pell Grant recipients at their school increased significantly. 

“If you reduce the boost for a particular sub-group of people who are applying, then the number of people admitted from that group on a very selective campus like Hopkins or Tufts, the percent of that group will go down,” Warikoo said.

Yet despite evidence that ending legacy admissions increases racial and class diversity, colleges continue these policies. 

“The justification for legacy boost has always been that people who are donating might stop being as generous when they learned that the university no longer gives a boost to the children of alumni,” Warikoo said.

The argument follows that fewer financial donations from alumni would mean a decrease in the amount of money available for financial aid.

“The argument, not just at Tufts, [but] at all universities has historically been that we have to subsidize these categories of students, particularly legacies, in order to create more money that builds a pot that we can use to then offset the cost of expanding to other underrepresented groups,” Marrow said.

Legacy admissions are thus supposed to help universities admit more low- and middle-income students and more students of color.

However, Johns Hopkins has demonstrated that this may not be the case. 

“Turns out you don’t have to have a model like that,” Marrow said, talking about the impact of ending legacy admissions at Johns Hopkins. “Turns out you can actually afford expanding new admits at the bottom without any giant cost to the university.”

The economic argument for legacy admissions doesn’t necessarily hold up, according to Marrow.

“The fact that [Johns Hopkins has] now done this, they’ve gotten rid of legacy admissions and they haven’t found huge economic impacts suggests that other universities could potentially do it too,” Marrow said.

However, financial considerations aren’t the only factor universities look at when deciding whether to end legacy admissions. The idea of a university community also plays a role.

Bill Gehling (A’74, G’79), executive director of the office of alumni relations, provided a statement to the Tufts Daily.

“Tufts is fortunate to have caring, committed and engaged alumni, and we appreciate their support of our mission through a variety of means – giving, volunteering, mentoring, providing internships, networking with new graduates, and others,” Gehling wrote. “While we cherish their loyalty, it’s important to note that decisions on admission are made exclusively by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.”

Often in debates over legacy admissions, race-based affirmative action policies are also raised. Some argue that affirmative action policies are the only reason some students are admitted to selective colleges, similarly to the idea that legacy students are only admitted because of their legacy status. 

“There’s often an assumption that every black, Latinx and Native American student on campus benefitted from the boost, and that’s also not the case,” Warikoo said. “In a ‘race blind’ admissions policy many would also have been admitted.”

Warikoo also spoke about the comparisons between legacy preference and race-based affirmative action.

“Sometimes I think there’s this logic that we should just eliminate all of it, and I think that’s wrong, and I think that’s misguided. I don’t think that’s a good strategy,” Warikoo said.

Marrow also points out that although “affirmative action” is most commonly associated with race, that’s not the only form.

“The two biggest forms of affirmative action are legacy admissions and athletic admissions,” Marrow said.

Legacy admissions raises questions of equity, financial stability, community building and access. 

“Universities are social institutions, and they can expand and uphold inequality, but they can also reduce it, and many institutions do both at the same time,” Marrow said.


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