Legacy Admissions: Johns Hopkins Drops Preferences, Other Institutions Consider Changes

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Johns Hopkins University just announced that it’s abandoned the practice of legacy admissions – preferences for children and relatives of an alumnus or alumna.

In fact, Johns Hopkins ended the practice in 2014 – and only got around to announcing the change in January. The percentage of legacy students in its 2019 freshman class has now fallen to 3.5%, from 12.5% in 2009 – the period just before a phaseout of legacy admissions began, according tot he Christian Science Monitor.

Varsity Blues

The Varsity Blues scandal showed the lengths parents would go to secure admission for their progeny to colleges and universities (as I discussed in Another Way the Rich Get Richer: US Indicts Fifty for College Admissions Fraud). Since prosecutors announced their probe, many participants have pled guilty to various charges, and some have done time.

The scandal has sparked many questions. Such as: what’s different between ‘gifting’ a college with a new building or facility to secure admissions for one’s sprog, and the actions for which  some Varsity Blues parents have now been punished.

Not much that I can see, actually. Except the amount of money that changes hands – and who receives it.

As the WSJ reports:

Richard Kahlenberg, a longtime critic of legacy preferences and senior fellow at left-leaning Century Foundation, said schools weren’t being forthright.

“Their hands are caught in the cookie jar and in a post Varsity Blues world they are trying to deny it,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “They realize that to the public the main difference between the soccer coach and bribing the school is who the check is made out to.”

Alas, the Varsity Blues prosecutors didn’t widen their probe to consider institutional admission practices more generally.

Some Institutions Already Eschew Legacy Admissions

Now, some leading US institutions, such as MIT and the University of California system – don’t make legacy admissions. Likewise, other elite universities – Oxford and Cambridge – also get by perfectly fine without them.

All Ivy League Institutions maintain the practice, At Harvard, legacies are five times more likely to be admitted compared to non-legacies, whereas at Princeton, they are four times more likely. Overall, being a legacy is equivalent to a 160 point bump in SAT score, according to the WSJ.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports:

Johns Hopkins’ announcement revitalizes the debate over legacy policies. It comes amid a growing call for elite institutions to regain the trust of a skeptical public by prioritizing equity and transparency. With lower-income and less-educated families representing the fastest-growing supply of students, many campuses are starting to rethink long-standing practices. And as the public gains more insight into how admissions have typically worked at elite institutions – through the Harvard admissions trial, for instance – selective colleges are facing more scrutiny about legacy and other special admissions categories that have tended to favor the wealthy.

“The real questions are a) Is it fair? and b) Can we afford it as a nation when it means we are doing less than we could be to make college realistic, accessible, and affordable?” says Jerome Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California (USC).

These are good questions, now part of the zeitgeist. Bernie Sanders has put questions of access to higher eduction front and center on the public policy menu by floating his free college plan; paying for higher education is only one facet of the access issue..


We now live in a much more unequal country than the one I grew up in, and we’ve all tacitly accepted that college admission is yet another arena in which the contest is rigged. My father and his two brothers were each high school guidance counsellors, and many members of my extended family are involved in the education game in some way. So for years I’ve been hearing about the deterioration of the dysfunctional university admissions system.

According to the Christian Science Monitor:

More admissions professionals are grappling with how to pull back the curtain on what they do, including by attending conferences like the recent “Reclaiming Public Trust in Admissions and Higher Education” at USC. “Nothing we do in admission and recruitment should be a secret,” Professor Lucido says. “Every admissions space should be available to all without influence. … If you’re going to have any kind of special admission categories, they should be open and transparent.”

Alas, some things that make the UK system nominally fairer are unlikely to be adopted at elite US institutions. One can apply to Oxford or Cambridge, but not both, which reduces the number of applications each institution must consider, and keeps each from being swamped by applicants. Oxbridge tutors conduct admissions interviews, making it possible to undertake a serious, substantive grilling. These practices are unlikely to be adopted at elite US institutions, where the faculty are happy to offload the entire admissions enterprise to a separate, standalone, administrative department.

So, I’m not sure slogans about transparency achieve very much.

There  has been some some student pressure to eliminate legacy admissions at Brown, Duke, and several other schools, according to the WSJ. These efforts remain isolated to individual schools and they have not coalesced into any wider, movement.

The Hopkins move is a step in the right direction – and the institution is blazing a trail that other institutions may elect to follow.

Unless and until they do, legacy admissions will be yet another example of just how the rich get richer.

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    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Sorry for the typo – now fixed! I know it’s Johns Hopkins….. Thanks for drawing this error to my attention. Would have sworn I included an s in my original headline, but obviously didn’t.

  1. The Rev Kev

    Not just a matter of how the rich get richer. The net effect is that the people that come out of these institutions may not be the sharpest knives in the draw. And we have all see politicians and business leaders whom we recognize as being unfit for purpose and wonder how they got where they are. As an example, consider the career of George W. Bush. So how was it that a ‘C’ student went to both Yale and Harvard again?

    If there was no such thing as legacy admissions, then this character may have continued his career of being given one company after another by daddy and his buddies to get himself rich with but little more. Going to both these institutions helped boost his career which led to him achieving the Presidency and we all know how that worked out. In short, a legacy of the legacy admissions schemes.

    1. KLG

      IIRC it was the Dean of the Law or Business School at the University of Texas who said that he was sure George W. Bush would do well in his future academic “endeavors” but not in Austin. Harvard had to take him in. I’ve had a fond place in my heart for UT ever since I read that.

    2. John Wright

      As author Kurt Vonnegut related, the 2004 US presidential election was between TWO “C” students from Yale who were also members of the secret society “Skull and Bones”.

      These former students were George W. Bush and John Kerry.


      In my cynicism, I expect that the removal of legacy admissions at these schools will spawn some method, other than attendance at an elite school, for children of the elite to preferential treatment in US society..

      Might this be an online “virtual” country club?

      Might this be college degrees granted similarly to Executive MBA’s in which the student does not spend much time at the schools’ campus?

      1. bmeisen

        “Virtual” country club! Social networking per invitation/qualification exists, also virtual pay-to-play. My impression is that it isn’t as satisfying as the brick and mortar variety. Something about the hand-grabbing, the sensory inputs that can’t be digitalized … or is there a “scratch n sniff” app out there?

        Dropping legacy admissions is not the solution. Making admissions truly meritocratic in the American system of institutionally-based elite higher education will not address its failure. Legacies are a side-show. The extended Ivy League family (+ JH, Stanford, UChi, about 20 institutions in total, overwhelming private, non-profit) can continue to serve its clientele because public secondary education continues to be primarily funded through property taxes. The “best” students will continue to come from municipalities where wealthy parents living in expensive homes pay more property tax and accordingly get properly equipped and staffed schools that can produce students with the profiles that elite institutions require.

        The more effective way to address the socially corrosive, anti-democratic influence of the current system of institutionally-based elite higher education is to confess to American youth that higher education is NOT first-and-foremost a personal guess about future earning potential – it is an opportunity provided to young people by the rest of us, motivated by the awareness that we are lost without a well-educated population. Accordingly higher education, as with all forms of education, must be public and free.

  2. rexl

    Well, it is rather easy to get rid of legacy students, however, getting rid of Affirmative Action, will be much more difficult, if much more necessary.

    1. Grayce

      Affirmative Action is often confused with Equal Opportunity–cannot tell which you meant.
      Affirmative action is a requirement only for an entity that receives federal funds, including defense contracts, etc. If you want the one, you agree to affirmatively promote some social function such as advancing diversity. On the other hand, Equal Opportunity is the law of the land.
      So, the one levels the playing field for women and minorities as a condition of accepting federal funds (cap and gown socialism?) while the other prohibits discrimination.

      1. davidgmillsatty

        Equal opportunity and equal ability are often confused as well. Should we level the playing field for people with unequal ability? If we do, does the county suffer?

    2. Larry Y

      They got rid of it at University of California schools. Other elite schools won’t do it because it will decrease the number of white students.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    I am quite convinced that all of this rending of garments over “college admissions” is but another symptom of over-population and globalization driving resource-hoarding and the rise of a quasi-feudal oligarchy in opposition to democracy.

    As a young person in the 1970’s I attended the University of California tuition-free. The rich attended their little country club colleges, but the democracy-loving Chief Justice Earl Warren was a fellow alumnus of my tuition-free institution.

    Today, my formerly tuition-free alma mater was too expensive to send my own children to. It is trying to self-fund by admitting thousands of Maserati-driving “full-fare” foreign students — who only cause corrosive resentment and blinding anger in the Pell Grant students who are struggling under the burden of the extortionate loans that have become the legacy of a once free university education — that they have been told is their only ticket out of poverty.

    This “Lifeboats Leaving the Titanic” mentality, driven by rationing, inevitably leads to the worst sort of corruption. The “Varsity Blues” scandal only parsed who benefits from the corruption, not the corruption itself.

  4. Synoia

    Johns Hopkins: We will drop the Legacy admissions program.

    Sotto Voche: We will instead focus on the Large Contributions Admissions Program. If the Legacy parent is poor, who wants to educate their offspring?

    1. NotReallyHere

      Recognizing your point, I get the impression that Hopkins is at least trying to rectify a system that is insanely out of balance. It was first, I believe, to restrict the number of PhD students it will accept on the basis that the PhD system was abusive. The pre-doc students live in poverty while studying, and are used as cheap labor by universities. When completed, the post-doctorates are often unemployed because universities are churning out too many of them.

      This move suggests that the institution is, at least, aware of the problems.

  5. Louis Fyne

    to be cynical, I wonder if an analyst at the Provost’s did the math and figured it’s more profitable to chase after the megadonors (who often are happy just with naming rights for their millions) than dangle legacy admits for alum-donors who want an admit for their kid for their “mere” thousands.

    1. KFritz

      The faculty would also be supportive. Dealing with inept legacy types has to be an annoying chore for them.

  6. Heraclitus

    I think that those who seek truly meritocratic admission haven’t thought it through. The misunderstood point of both Murray and Herrnstein’s ‘The Bell Curve’ (1994) and Christopher Lasch’s ‘The Revolt of the Elites’ was that an elite based on IQ was a threat to Democracy. Not only that, but the ready access of bright students from the hinterlands to the great universities on the coasts deprives the hinterlands of leadership. And it is not at all clear that the economic benefit is there for the university, or for the students. One of the current issues in social science, as yet unresolved, is whether there is ever actually much social mobility in the world .

    The NYTs did a couple of articles a few years ago–2015, I think–in which they examined the lives of people who had made it into Ivies and thence to good jobs from humble beginnings. The comments were telling. A majority of the commenters, as I recall, who had done the same thing as described in the article and moved up in the world, concluded that it was not worth it, and that the process had alienated them from their families, and created a hole in their souls that no amount of worldly success could ever fill.

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