The past year has welcomed remarkable changes to Tufts. From the unfurling of its anti-racism initiative to its test-optional diverse applicant pool, the academic landscape is shifting more rapidly than students, and probably faculty, can remember. On April 14, another milestone was reached when the Tufts University School of Medicine eliminated legacy status from consideration in its 2021 application. While anti-racism commitments and surging applicant diversity have been noted at scores of institutions across the United States, the decision to drop legacy considerations from admissions distinguishes TUSM from the vast majority of medical schools.
Currently, admissions at most of the nation’s medical schools and hundreds more universities without medical programs consider legacy status, a tool that favors the admission of students with familial ties to the university. Formally established in the early 20th century, legacy admission policies were created to protect universities’ white, wealthy and Protestant student bodies from competing with recent European and Jewish immigrants. Today they function in much the same way, favoring admission of white, wealthy applicants over immigrants, people of color and individuals of lower socioeconomic status.
While TUSM has decided to scrap legacy admissions for the coming year, the continuation of the policy by the School of Arts and Sciences as well as other Tufts schools is problematic. The persistence of a policy that was founded with its basis in religious, ethnic and economic discrimination threatens to undermine Tufts’ commitment to reform its admissions process in accordance with its anti-racist aspirations. What’s more, Tufts as an institution is aware of the damage from legacy admissions, which has come up in faculty meetings, Daily articles and emails to Tufts admissions offices. So far, the administration — with the exception of TUSM and the Fletcher School, the latter which removed its legacy question in September — has not acted to address it. Legacy was conspicuously absent from Tufts’ anti-racism compositional diversity workstream and many admissions administrators declined or did not respond to requests for comment about the way legacy is used or its effects on the composition of the student body.
Some of the effects on the student body are easy to discern. In 2017, the median family income of a Tufts student sat at $224,800, the 8th highest compared to other elite colleges. 77% of students fell into the top fifth of incomes, with families making more than $110,000, landing Tufts in 4th place compared to other elite institutions. During that year, Tufts had almost as many students from the top 1% of earners as from the bottom 80%. Statistics on the racial diversity of Tufts signal similar shortcomings. Tufts’ diversity data indicates that as of fall 2020, Tufts’ student body is 50.8% white, while only 4.6% Black/African American and 8.4% Hispanic, making it less diverse than private institutions of similar prestige. Apart from hampering economic and racial diversity, the use of legacy admissions is also troubling because Tufts ranks 7th next to other elite colleges in terms of social mobility, measured by the chance that a poor student has to become a rich adult. The result is a significant loss in potential to improve the social standing of underrepresented groups.
It is true that the economic and racial homogeneity of the student body is not just due to legacy admissions. It is also true that there are other ways of diversifying an institution. Making test scores optional and reevaluating application metrics (as recommended in the anti-racism compositional diversity workstream) may mitigate the effects of applicants’ differential access to resources. Nevertheless, eliminating legacy admissions is obvious, low-hanging fruit, and unsurprisingly has shown significant promise in boosting racial and socioeconomic diversity. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University eliminated legacy admissions, and a comparison of data from 2009 to 2019 found that Pell Grant eligible students increased by 10%, students on financial aid increased by 20% and racial minority representation increased by 10%. During this same time period its endowment nearly tripled, adding evidence to research demonstrating that the removal of legacy admissions need not come with a financial tradeoff, as proponents of the policy would have you believe.
Given this data and Tufts’ commitment to anti-racism, why has the Tufts administration avoided identifying legacy admissions as a problem and failed to address it? While the reasons remain elusive, this lapse spurred students — including myself — to organize in the fall of 2020 (Bounce ‘Bos Legacy on Facebook and Instagram) and push for admissions reform. For seven months the organization campaigned to remove the policy at the medical school and today maintain open communication with programs that still ask about and/or consider legacy on their application, including Undergraduate Admissions, the DVM program of Cummings Veterinary School, and the School of Dental Medicine, though the latter did not respond to outreach and therefore their legacy policy is unknown.
However, it is time for more than just a small student organization to recognize the harm legacy admissions have caused to the integrity of our admissions process and the composition of our community. The Tufts’ administration must acknowledge the racism, socioeconomic discrimination and xenophobia that legacy admissions were founded on and continue to propagate today. There is no moral framework to justify the continuation of a policy which favors the nation’s wealthiest and most connected. For Tufts to truly transition into an anti-racist institution, legacy admissions can no longer continue unaddressed. This fall, let’s move to end this inequitable policy of racial and socioeconomic supremacy through collective action (sign our petition here or at the QR code below) and individual engagement (contact your admissions office to respectfully urge reform). Reaching this milestone will help cement Tufts’ true legacy of anti-racism and equality, and count Tufts as only the fourth elite private university to eliminate legacy admissions. Together, let’s end this prejudiced admissions practice and cultivate a brighter, more egalitarian educational landscape, filled with the ethos our university and community deserve.
Christoph Baker is a dual-degree student at Tufts University School of Medicine and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is the founder and co-director of Bounce ‘Bos Legacy, a student group committed to ending legacy preference at Tufts. He can be reached at [email protected].