For decades, Carnegie Mellon University viewed whether a student applicant was related to alumni as an “important” or “considered” factor in admissions decisions.
But it appears that legacies, as children or relatives of alumni are called, no longer have an edge in admissions decisions at the highly selective university.
In its latest Common Data Set, for 2022-23, the school marked “not considered” in a section detailing how important alumni relations were in admissions decisions. That had not been the case since at least 1999-2000. Earlier Common Data Set reports are not available on the university’s website.
The University of Pittsburgh also has ended its consideration of legacy status.
Asked about the wording change from “considered” to “not considered” that first appeared this year, Pitt spokesman Jared Stonesifer said Thursday that admissions staff actually had stopped considering legacy status in 2020 — even though Pitt’s Common Data Set said otherwise for several years.
Giving preference to children of alumni is a practice stretching back generations at elite universities across the country. Some critics say it unfairly advantages wealthy applicants, while U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., recently likened it to affirmative action for white people.
Debate over its fairness has intensified since the Supreme Court ruled last month that colleges can no longer consider a student applicant’s race.
Officials at Carnegie Mellon declined to directly address questions about why, and over what time period, the school’s stance on legacies changed.
“Each applicant is evaluated by the same criteria irrespective of legacy status. CMU does this to ensure equity throughout the admission process for all students,” the university said in a statement provided by spokesman Peter Kerwin.
The university declined further comment.
An administrator who headed admissions at Carnegie Mellon for nearly 40 years before retiring June 30 recalls how over time, as the number and quality of applicants rose, the university found less need to give legacies a boost.
“It was more of an evolution than, ‘One day we did it, the next day we didn’t,’ ” Dean Emeritus of Admission Mike Steidel told the Tribune-Review.
“I do think there was a time when perhaps legacies needed a boost,” he said. “Over time, the quality of the applicant pool increased to the point where we really didn’t have to do it.”
Steidel said the tipping point came perhaps three or four years ago as standardized testing became optional at many institutions, including Carnegie Mellon.
Steidel said he could not speak for Carnegie Mellon’s current position, but noted that during his tenure legacies typically made up less than 10% of incoming classes.
Viewed from an equity and diversity perspective, he said, legacy programs are a harder sell with the public for reasons including the Supreme Court’s ban on using affirmative action in admissions decisions.
“It’s harder and harder to make the case that legacies even deserve a bump in the admission process. By and large, historically, legacies have been predominantly white,” Steidel said. “They are not underrepresented in the applicant pool at all.”
Last month’s affirmative action ruling sent colleges scrambling to find alternative ways to ensure Blacks and other underrepresented minorities are equitably represented on campuses.
The ruling was followed within days by a civil rights complaint over use of legacy preferences.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, lodged the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England. The group contends that Harvard University’s legacy preferences violate the Civil Rights Act.
Harvard was one of two schools, along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose affirmative action programs were ruled unconstitutional on June 29 by the Supreme Court.
A National Association for College Admission Counseling report in 2019 suggested that legacy status was a factor in admissions decisions at about half of the nation’s colleges and universities.
Education Reform Now, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank opposed to the practice, said in an issue brief that about 100 colleges and universities had ended legacy preferences since 2015, but nearly 800 still consider legacy status.
The issue brief by senior policy analyst James Murphy called the practice “a textbook example of systemic racism, since most beneficiaries of legacy preferences are white, while students of color and students from low- and middle-income households are much more likely to be the first in their families to go to college.”
The programs are common at institutions admitting fewer than 25% of applicants, Murphy’s issue brief stated. “Many highly ranked universities and colleges enroll more legacies than Black students.”
Defenders of legacy preferences say they can encourage alumni loyalty and donor gifts that strengthen an institution.
Shamus Khan, a professor of sociology and American studies at Princeton University, offered another defense of such policies.
“One group, however, got a big economic boost from going to elite schools: poor students, students of color and students whose parents didn’t have a college degree,” Khan wrote. “And that’s because elite colleges connected them to students born into privilege — the very kind of student that legacy preferences admit in such large numbers.”
Carnegie Mellon’s revised stance on legacies distinguishes it from most, but not all, of the 13 institutions it considers peer institutions.
California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology do not consider legacy status, while it is considered at Cornell University, Duke University, Emory University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rice University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.
Penn State University’s Common Data Set reports in each of the past several years indicates that the main campus considers alumni relationships in admissions decisions. The reports say the same for its branch campuses, including Penn State New Kensington in Upper Burrell, Penn State Beaver, Penn State Greater Allegheny on the border of McKeesport and White Oak and Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus.
However, spokesman Wyatt Dubois painted a different picture Friday in a written statement that did not mention those Common Data Set reports, which are posted to the university’s website.
Dubois said when undergraduates apply, “evaluation for admission to the university does not include race, ethnicity or legacy status as a factor.”
“Once admitted to the university, students are placed at a particular campus. Criteria used in determining campus placement include residency, legacy status, being from an underserved community, race and ethnicity, veteran status, being an adult learner, geographic diversity and special talent.”
In light of the Supreme Court decision on the use of race in admissions, Penn State is reviewing its admissions and campus placement procedures, Dubois said.
At Pitt, Stonesifer said the change involving legacy status followed a review of admissions practices following the Varsity Blues scandal that erupted nationally in 2019 over bribery, standardized test cheating and misrepresenting student-athletes to influence admissions decisions at several leading universities.
Pitt wanted to safeguard against such influence, he said. It did not formally announce the change in practice.
“It’s important to note that the consideration of (alumni relations) as checked on previous Common Data Set data was not listed as ‘important’ or ‘very important,’” Stonesifer said. “It has never been a primary or ‘plus’ factor in Pitt admissions of undergraduates.”
Pitt declined to say how many legacies are part of its entering classes.
At Carnegie Mellon, the alumni association defines legacies as “students with family members who graduated from CMU, among them parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and other more distant relatives,” according to the school’s website.
“Love of CMU is genetic. Our community boasts nearly 4,000 legacies among the current students and alumni, including five families who have five generations of CMU graduates,” the website said.
Bruce Edelston, a 1976 graduate and association board member, said he does not have strong feelings either way and sees both sides of the argument over legacy preferences.
“The pros are certainly fundraising development. I think people like to think that if they give a lot of money to a university, their children will get special preference,” he said. “I can sort of understand the other side saying it’s unfair to other applicants.”
He said he prefers merit over affirmative action but does not see legacy programs as specifically a race issue.
Steidel is also a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and administration and management science in 1978.
The university is bigger, more competitive and more international in reach than it was when Steidel was a student.
He said he believes that parents of legacies understand what a challenging place Carnegie Mellon has become today for an applicant.
“I couldn’t get in today, that’s for sure,” he quipped. “The world has changed.”
Bill Schackner is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .