Institutional Hooks: Exploring the college process


Hanna Hornfeld and Katya Tolunsky

Institutional hooks — including legacy, donations, and having parents who work as faculty or serve on the board of a collegiate institution — have long played a role in the college process. Speculations about the weight of these connections and debates over their ethics often dominate  conversations at the school about college admissions.

Executive Director of College Counseling Canh Oxelson said these conversations among students are mostly unproductive. Because students have limited information on the nuance and context of ways institutional hooks play out in the college admissions process, they often cannot have reasonable and thoughtful conversations about college connections, he said. “It plays out in a much more layered and nuanced way than students think.”

Of 62 seniors who responded to an anonymous survey for The Record, 27, or nearly half, applied early decision or early action to a school at which they had legacy. Often, when students know only that a peer has a connection, they assume that connection played a major role in that student’s acceptance, Oxelson said. However, most candidates would have been admitted, deferred, or denied regardless of whether they had a connection. “The bottom line is, the university isn’t going to say yes to a student, regardless of the development, legacy, or athletic tag, unless they feel the student is prepared academically,” he said. 

Legacy can still have an impact on a student’s acceptance, although the level of impact varies depending on the institution. Some schools, such as Dartmouth, have given legacy preferences since the 1920s; others, such as Caltech and MIT, have never allowed legacy to affect their admissions decisions, according to a CNBC article published in 2019. 

Roughly 40 percent of private institutions across the country consider legacy in their admissions processes, according to a 2019 article published in “The Atlantic”. At the most selective institutions in the United States, around 10 to 15 percent of students have a parent who also attended, according to the same article. 

The percentage of legacy students at top schools has decreased over the last few decades, but admissions rates at those institutions have dropped faster, Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” told the “New Yorker”. “If you take a typical Ivy League school, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, they might admit two-thirds of legacy applicants. Now they might admit one-third of legacy applicants. But, at the same time, their overall acceptance rate has probably gone down from between 20 and 25 percent to between 5 and 10 percent. So, proportionally, being a legacy is even more of an advantage,” Golden said. 

Dartmouth views legacy as one of many factors in an application, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Lee Coffin said in an article published in the college’s student newspaper, “The Dartmouth.” Coffin also said the school has maintained the same policy on legacy admission over the past ten years. According to the same article, legacy applicants in 2011 received “at least one additional review in this process” and had over two times the overall admissions rate.  

An op-ed written by “The New York Times” editorial board calling for the end of legacy preferences suggested that the government mandate colleges to publicly share statistics on their students’ legacy status, test scores, and class. Although Harvard was forced to become more transparent when it was sued for allegedly discriminating against Asian applicants, many schools do not currently disclose this data.

The importance of donations to an admissions decision depends on the college and the amount of money given, Oxelson said. While some colleges rely on alumni to bolster their endowment or their financial aid budget, others do not. Although many families donate to universities, it usually is not enough money to impact the admissions office’s decision, he said. 

For example, giving to a school such as Harvard, which has a $41.9 billion  endowment, is not nearly as influential as giving the same amount of money to a smaller university, he said. “Your $250,000 would go further at my alma mater, the University of San Francisco, which has an endowment of $900 million, than at Harvard.” 

In a perfect world, colleges would not take connections into account, but Oxelson understands why hooks are factors, he said. “Colleges and universities often act like private businesses,” he said. “In general, colleges are trying to educate students and create new knowledge. But those goals are expensive, so like any business they need to maximize and diversify their revenue streams.”

Eli Scher (12), who applied to a school where he has legacy, understands why donations would play a role in admissions. “Securing more funds for a school that really relies on that endowment will certainly benefit other people in the long run,” he said. “It’s just hard to criticize schools for wanting to take advantage of that.” 

However, Abigail Morse (12), who applied to a school where she has legacy and where her family has donated, said donations should not matter to admissions offices. “I understand it’s a nice thing to do, but it does seem a lot like buying your way into college,” she said. “Alumni will still be donating if they do it out of gratitude, pride in the school, and a desire to make their home-base a better place. Colleges shouldn’t worry about losing donations. They should instead focus on having a student body which is highly devoted to the school itself.”

By not giving legacy preferences, MIT is able to focus on admitting as strong a student body as possible, Assistant Director at MIT Admissions Christ Peterson wrote in a 2012 blog post on the MIT admissions website.

Some college admissions officers, including Peterson, do not support legacy admissions. According to a 2018 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed, only 32 percent of private admissions directors supported taking an applicant’s legacy status into consideration, although 42 percent of private institutions do so. 

Peterson would not work for an institution if it gave preferences to legacy students, he wrote. “I am not interested in simply reproducing a multigenerational lineage of educated elite,” he wrote. “And if anyone in our office ever advocated for a mediocre applicant on the basis of their ‘excellent pedigree’ they would be kicked out of the committee room.”

Some schools, including MIT, have never considered legacy status in admissions. Others, such as Texas A&M University, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Georgia have transitioned away from giving legacy preferences over the past 20 years. More institutions and lawmakers moved to reform admissions policies after the college admissions scandal in 2019. 

In 2009, 12.5 percent of the freshman class at Johns Hopkins were legacy students, compared to nine percent who qualified for Pell Grants, which are need-based federal grants for low-income students. Now, six years after Johns Hopkins started phasing out legacy admissions, 3.5 percent of the incoming class has a legacy connection and 19.1 percent qualifies for Pell Grants. 

“Ending the practice of legacy admissions has accelerated our work of recruiting and matriculating students from all walks of life who demonstrate the academic rigor and talent we expect of all Hopkins students,” Johns Hopkins Vice Provost of Admissions and Financial Aid David Phillips said in “The Dartmouth.” Giving an advantage to students with legacy connections hindered Johns Hopkins from admitting more qualified applicants of a lower socioeconomic class, he said. 

Giving preference to students with hooks has impacted Harvard’s racial diversity, according to a 2019 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Legacy and athlete preferences at Harvard.” That year, 43 percent of white students at Harvard, but only 16 percent of students of color, had hooks including legacy, parents as faculty and staff, parents as major donors, or athletic recruitment. The study concluded that if the school stopped taking those hooks into consideration, its admission of white students would decrease.

Jacob Schorsch (12) finds it problematic that hooks play a role in college admissions, he said. “If I was an admissions officer and knew that I was robbing a kid with potential — but maybe not the resources or connections — of a spot for someone who would financially benefit the school, I would not be able to sleep at night.”

In a July 2018 interview with NPR, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said that a large number of legacy applicants stand out as strong candidates in general. “Their applications tend to be well put-together,” he said. “They have deep knowledge of the institution. So it’s a self-selected pool, which, as a group, by almost any metric, looks very, very good relative to the broader applicant pool.”

Even if admissions committees did not consider institutional hooks, legacy applicants would still have an advantage, Ana Maria Melián (12) said. “It inevitably has an impact on college acceptance because having well-educated parents affects what kind of high school education you can get, what your financial situation is, what kind of academic and extracurricular opportunities you have had,” she said.

Because legacy students already have privileges, Melián does not believe colleges should place a stronger emphasis on connections. “Your parents’ success or tenure at a school has very little to do with who you are or what your personality is,” Melián said.

 A legacy connection does not give colleges any information about an applicant, as students do not have control over where their parents went to school, Aaron Shuchman (12) said. “I’m surprised that colleges still consider it, because ultimately it’s not an indicator of anything about the student,” he said. “The parents aren’t applying to college.” 

For Morse, legacy creates a feeling of unified pride and shared memories between parents and their children, so it should be factored into a student’s application, she said. “If the parent thinks the child will love the school, then the child applying as a legacy will probably be choosing that school because they know they will be a good fit. Legacies, if they decide to apply to their parents’ college, are more likely to have a great time there.”

Jolie Nelsen (12), who does not have a connection to the school she applied to for early decision, said institutional hooks should not play any role in college admissions. “I don’t think it’s wrong at all to want to go to a school that your family went to as part of traditions, but I also don’t think that’s necessarily grounds for acceptance,” she said. 

Although Schorsch recognizes that many students at the school benefit from institutional hooks, he thinks the main issue is not students capitalizing on the system, but rather the system itself that promotes the economic aspects of colleges, he said. 

Some schools consider legacy preferences as a way to boost alumni donations. A 2018 report from the Harvard Committee to Study Race-Neutral Alternatives stated that eliminating legacy considerations would lower alumni’s willingness to donate to the school. However, a separate study by Tara O’Neill and Chad Coffman published in a book titled “Affirmative Action for the Rich” found that legacy preferences and alumni donations are not as closely connected after statistically adjusting for wealth. According to this study, colleges admit more of their wealthier legacy students whose families tend to donate more because they have the money to do so — not because of legacy preferences. 

Beyond encouraging alumni to donate, Scher believes that legacy admissions help families maintain relationships with schools. “If an alumnus has a good relationship with the school and feels very positively about it, then maybe in the future they’ll go on to be very involved with the community,” he said. 

Ultimately, students seem to exaggerate the importance of institutional hooks in the college admissions process, Oxelson said. Although a significant connection could be a factor taken into consideration, they rarely play as big a role as students generally believe they do, he said. As such, he is sometimes frustrated when he hears students talk about whether hooks played a role in their peers’ admission.

Oxelson has often found that students will choose not to apply to schools that would be better suited for them because they have connections at other schools. “I have told kids applying to Caltech, ‘I know you’re legacy there, but they don’t care,’ but they still do it because they think it gives them an advantage,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking as a college counselor because I understand the logic behind that. We are conditioned to believe that connections help a lot and provide some level of predictability.” 

Melián said the rhetoric surrounding institutional hooks at the school is harmful to both students who do and do not have connections. “Those who are rejected from schools may wonder if legacy applicants were selected over them, and people who are accepted may worry that they were not chosen based on their own merit,” she said. 

Students often tend to use hooks to justify why students got into colleges in order to make themselves feel better about their own results in the process, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling Chris Farmer said. “No matter how resilient you are, if your plan A doesn’t work out perfectly, it stings,” Farmer said. “It is normal human behavior to try to find a reason for that sting, but the person who is a legacy should not feel guilty about that.”

When students are told they were admitted to certain schools because of their connections, they are experiencing a form of verbal harassment, Oxelson said. “It is totally invalidating whatever hard work the student did, which may or may not be known to that student’s peers,” he said. “That is heartbreaking because some [students] are doing phenomenal stuff. To have all of that reduced because it’s known that a student has some kind of connection to a college is unfair and offensive.”

Shuchman has heard other people speculating about how legacy may have influenced students’ college acceptances. Although his friends do not speculate in this way, Shuchman did not tell them that he had a legacy connection at the college he will attend. “It would be damaging to me if I saw people saying, ‘You only got in somewhere because your parent went there,’” he said. “It’s still a big accomplishment, and you should try to be happy for them instead of bitter about whatever the reason you think it is.”

Oxelson hopes to reduce misconceptions around hooks by having open conversations about the subject in smaller groups with students rather than lecturing in a Zoom call with 180 students during College Counseling workshops. “You’re probably never going to understand it perfectly, and that’s partially because you’re not in the room when these decisions are being made by colleges,” he said. 

No matter what, the college process is not fair to everybody, Oxelson said. “You’re not all in the same kind of high school, you’re not all using the same curriculum, you don’t all have access to the same kinds of opportunities,” he said. 

“The next time that an admissions officer talks about the process being ‘fair’ will be the first time. Applications get a fair evaluation, but college counselors and admissions officers don’t describe the process of applying to college as ‘fair.’”