Analyzing the Dynamics of Legacy Preferences in College Admissions

MIT Sloan Professor Emilio J. Castilla

Why do many U.S. colleges still give preference to applicants who are relatives of alumni, and what are the impacts of giving preference to such “legacy” applicants? These questions motivated a new study by MIT Sloan Professor Emilio J. Castilla and University of Colorado Assistant Professor Ethan J. Poskanzer

Castilla and Poskanzer’s article “Through the Front Door: Why Do Organizations (Still) Prefer Legacy Applicants?” was first published online in September 2022 by The American Sociological Review and then was included in the journal’s October 2022 issue. Castilla, who is the NTU Professor of Management and a Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT Sloan, is also Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER).  Poskanzer is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and he earned his PhD in Management from MIT Sloan in 2022.

Giving preference to the children of alumni has been criticized, and some U.S. colleges and universities, including MIT, have a policy of not giving an admissions advantage to legacy applicants. However, legacy preferences remain fairly common: A 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed found that 42% of admission directors at private U.S. universities and 6% at public ones indicated their organizations include legacy satus as one factor in their admissions decisions.

Using 16 years of data from a highly selective U.S. college (referred to in the article as “The College”), Castilla and Poskanzer explored the reasons why legacy applicants to The College were twice as likely as non-legacy applicants to be admitted. The researchers write that they found “strong evidence that The College benefits economically from admitting legacies.” Legacies were more likely to accept offers of admission, were less likely to apply for financial aid, and were more likely to have affluent parents who had the capacity to make significant donations to the college. What’s more, once legacies became alumni, they donated more to The College than non-legacies. 

However, the authors found that giving a preference to legacy applicants undermined The College's quest for racial diversity, as legacy applicants were more likely to be White. Legacy applicants were, on average, not significantly more qualified or better students than non-legacy candidates, so giving them preference also ran counter to The College's goal of attracting the best and most talented students. 

"We hope our study of The College reminds university leaders and public officials of the trade-offs between admissions decisions to prioritize material support/needs and other key organizational (and even societal) goals—such as selecting the most talented and diverse candidates for educational opportunities,” Castilla and Poskanzer conclude.

For more information about this study, read a more detailed summary of the research here or read the paper here. --Reported by Martha E. Mangelsdorf