Several years ago, Johns Hopkins University quietly abolished an admissions policy that boosted applicants who are relatives of alumni — a shift that sets the Baltimore school apart from many other highly selective colleges and universities that offer what is known as a “legacy” preference.
Now, Hopkins officials are proclaiming their stance publicly after seeing evidence that ditching the legacy preference helped the university build a more diverse student body without sacrificing academic quality. Not long ago, freshmen at the university with legacy connections outnumbered those who had enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell Grants. The opposite is true for the Class of 2023.
Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said in an interview Monday the legacy preference is “a very peculiar institution” in higher education. To reward applicants for the accident of a familial connection, he said, is “deeply perplexing given the country’s deep commitments to merit and equal opportunity.”
Among prominent private research universities, Hopkins joins the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology in rejecting the use of a legacy preference.
“There is only one way into (and out of) MIT, and that’s the hard way,” MIT admissions official Chris Peterson wrote in a 2012 blog. “The people here value that.”
The public University of Maryland at College Park said it does not take legacy into account in admissions. Nor does the University of California.
The practice, however, remains widespread among prestigious colleges and universities. Defenders say it helps schools raise money and, in general, strengthen ties with alumni. Former Brown University president Ruth Simmons, who now leads Prairie View A&M University, testified in fall 2018 in support of Harvard University’s use of a legacy preference in admissions.
“Our institutions are venerable, I think that’s the right word, because they are revered over many, many years by a succession of alumni who come to love our universities and what they provide,” Simmons testified at a recent federal trial that scrutinized Harvard admissions. “It is entirely appropriate for them to believe that it would be wonderful if their children could also enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed as students.”
Data uncovered through that lawsuit found that legacy applicants were admitted to Harvard at a far higher rate during a recent six-year span — 33.6% — than the rate of 5.9% for other applicants. Officials at Harvard and other schools with legacy preferences emphasize that applicants are not admitted unless they are qualified.
Daniels, who arrived at Hopkins in 2009, said he was struck at the time by the scope of the legacy influence there.
In that fall’s first-year class, university officials said, 12.5% were children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren or siblings of people who held bachelor’s degrees from the university. (The Hopkins definition of legacy was expansive. Often, colleges restrict the benefit to children or siblings of alumni.)
After Daniels took office, Hopkins took gradual steps to reduce the impact of the preference in the admission process and then eliminate it. The legacy share shrank to about 10 percent of the incoming class in 2012, then 5% in 2014. Officials say the preference was effectively shelved in that year. Last fall, 3.5% of the 1,355 students who matriculated into the Class of 2023 had legacy ties.
In the meantime, Hopkins has stepped up its recruiting of students from modest economic backgrounds. In 2009, officials said, the Pell-eligible share of Hopkins freshmen was 9%. Now, it is 19%.
Daniels said most applicants who are children of alumni come from affluent families and have other social and educational advantages. In light of that, he said, it struck him as unnecessary to give those applicants another edge in a highly competitive process.
Last year, Hopkins admitted fewer than 10% of more than 30,100 who applied. The university does not penalize applicants for financial need. It also offers aid packages that meet full need, without asking domestic students to take out loans. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who graduated from Hopkins in 1964 and is a Democratic presidential candidate, gave the university $1.8 billion in 2018 to support financial aid.
When universities deny admission to children of alumni, senior officials often hear about it. Daniels acknowledged the policy shift on legacy applicants sometimes leads to “disappointment” among “families that have longtime associations with Hopkins.” But he said the alumni community accepts the change.
“I would even say there are alumni out there who have felt better about the institution,” he said.