HARRINGTON: Increase legacies

Admitting more legacy students could increase financial aid for low-income students

Seventy-five percent of Americans oppose legacy preferences in college admissions, including my fellow columnist Nazar Aljassar and the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who attended Harvard College as a legacy. Kennedy introduced a bill in 2003 that would require colleges to report legacy admissions statistics, hoping to shame them into ending any favoritism. Opponents of legacy preferences decry the advantage given to a group of applicants who are predominantly white, affluent and — by definition — have a college-educated parent.

University undergraduates are 60.6 percent white, generally affluent (only 13 percent are Pell Grant recipients) and about 90.3 percent have a college-educated parent. But what if, within this rather homogenous population, the number of legacy students was increased? This simple action could enable the restoration of AccessUVa’s loan-free aid packages for low-income students despite the University’s budget woes amid the shrinking state contribution.

The reason legacies are desirable is, of course, the money. A 2009 study of an anonymous selective research university demonstrated that alumni with 17-year-old children who plan on applying to their alma mater were 25 percent more likely to donate that year than childless alumni. If their children were admitted, the alumni were 34 percent more likely than childless alumni to donate that year and 25-30 percent more likely to donate the rest of their college years. Rejecting a legacy also lowers donations: alumni whose children were rejected stopped donating at a greater rate than childless alumni, giving less than alumni whose children never applied.

As a legacy myself, I have also seen indirect ways in which the 15 percent of University students who are legacies have helped the University community. For my dad and his college friends, a child’s attendance here gives the opportunity to rediscover the school, this time on an adult budget. While this can mean nights in the Cavalier Inn and Gus Burgers at The White Spot, it can also lead to season basketball tickets, Christmas gifts from the bookstore, and reunion attendance with former classmates — who might also be inspired to donate.

Increasing the number of legacy students does not necessarily require admitting less qualified applicants. For example, the University’s policy of evaluating out-of-state legacy applicants as if they were in-state does not lower the standards of admission, but rather applies the less rigorous in-state standard to them. The Alumni Association also increases the number of legacy students by helping improve their applications through the annual Alumni Family Weekend and Admission Liaison Program. These programs should be expanded and advertised to all alumni.

However, I also support granting admittance to somewhat less competitive legacies. Academically, they can keep up with their peers: a 2009 Duke study demonstrated that legacies initially had lower GPAs than their peers with college-educated parents (perhaps proof they were less academically qualified), but this gap closed by second year. Worries about the effect on numbers-based college rankings of students with somewhat lower grades and test scores can be quelled by the knowledge that legacies are more likely to accept offers of admission, raising the ever-important yield. When legacies become alumni, they are likely donors, too.

Obviously, every dollar of alumni donation is not a dollar for AccessUVa. Many large alumni donations are restricted to a specific purpose (such as the creation of the Batten School). The University’s main donation link allows a choice of 30 gift allocations, one of which permits special instructions. This restriction of funding explains why the Board of Visitors cannot fund the $40.2 million demands of AccessUVA despite the donation-funded construction of a $12.4 million squash court.

If encouraged, though, alumni parents of University students would be particularly amenable to selecting the AccessUVa category, because they are more tuned in to what current students care about than the average alumnus. In fact, students care so much about AccessUVA that Student Council is encouraging fourth-year students to donate their class gift to it, a move Student Council President Eric McDaniel said was “to show the University community and the alumni community this is something students care about, and they should make it a priority in resource allocation and fundraising.” Alumni who regularly interact with students might heed this call. Sympathizing with the heartbreak of both students and parents at the prospect of not affording Virginia tuition, they would be willing to put their money towards AccessUVa.

By eliminating grant-only options for the lowest-income students, the University lost its ability to compete for low-income students with the 31 similarly selective colleges that promise to meet their full need without loans. Students of families earning less than $55,000, for example, cannot afford to choose the University’s loans of up to $28,000 across four years over, say, no loans at Vanderbilt or a $2,000 loan but no expected family contribution at Duke. This is troublesome for a university whose 2013 strategic assessment found its culture unwelcoming and polarizing due to its “elitist, preppy, and homogeneous” character. Increasing the privilege of one group of applicants in order to benefit underprivileged ones may seem counterintuitive, but maintaining AccessUVa’s strength is important enough to merit the consideration of nontraditional solutions.

Elaine Harrington is a Viewpoint writer.

Published March 26, 2014 in Opinion

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