Expert Commentary

Elite college admissions: A preference for athletes and legacy students

How much of an edge do athletes and legacy students have in elite college admissions? How do they compare to other students academically? We've gathered research that looks at these questions and others.

Historic photo of the USC men's relay team training
Members of the University of Southern California men's relay team, 1934. (The Happy Rower/Flickr)

Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions bribery scandal involving fake test scores and athletic credentials, has raised questions about how much of an edge student athletes and wealthy students already have in the admissions process at the country’s most prestigious schools.

How much better are an athlete’s chances of getting into a top university compared with other students? What about “legacy” students, whose family members are alumni?

Multiple research studies over the years have found that admissions officers give both groups preferential treatment. But estimates vary in terms of how much of an advantage they enjoy. For example, a study of admission rates at 30 top-tier schools found that the odds of admission for legacy students were as high as 15.69 times the odds of admission for other students. Another study, which focuses on three private research universities, found that the edge given to athletes is roughly equivalent to an extra 200 points on the SAT and that it’s worth an additional 160 points for legacy students. Meanwhile, research offers a mixed view of the academic qualifications of these two groups of students. Some studies of elite institutions indicate that athletes and legacies have lower test scores or fall short in other areas when compared to student bodies as a whole.

Unfortunately for journalists, it’s hard to know how such policies have changed over time and how admission rates at schools in one state compare with those in another because no agency tracks this data at the national or even regional level. Also, private schools are not required to disclose this data to the public.

We asked a few scholars for tips on how journalists can track down this data and put the current controversy into perspective, including Jerome A. “Jerry” Lucido, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education who’s also executive director of the school’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice.

Lucido pointed out that higher education leaders already were voicing serious concerns about elite admissions practices when they gathered for a conference that his center hosted in early 2011. A 32-page report that summarizes the conference paints a picture of an admissions process that has gotten out of control. Too often the process reinforces “an attitude that gives rise to widespread cheating and gaming the system in high school,” according to the report.

Lucido noted that it may be difficult for reporters to find data on college admission rates for recruited athletes and legacy students, partly because elite colleges may not want the public to know how small of a chance students actually have of getting in if they aren’t athletes or legacies. Still, he offered the following suggestions, keeping in mind that public institutions must respond to public records requests while private universities are only required to share a limited amount of information.

  • Read alumni magazines. Some schools publish reports on the types of students admitted each year in a fall issue of their alumni magazine. “Alumni always want to know ‘What about me?’ and the alumni director always wants to know ‘What about my group?’ so there is always pressure on admission deans to report that,” Lucido told Journalist’s Resource.
  • Ask for copies of admission reports shared with the faculty council or ask to review the minutes of faculty council meetings. “At Chapel Hill [the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], when I was dean of admissions, I reported all categories of admissions to the faculty council,” he said.
  • Check with college athletic oversight committees. “The athletic committee might report it [that information] to a faculty senate or faculty committee,” Lucido said. While the information may not be disclosed to the public, a reporter might be able to talk someone into sharing a copy.
  • Some schools publish what’s known as a “first-year student profile,” which may offer information about the number of legacy students admitted during a particular year. (For example, USC’s “First-Year Student Profile and Admission Information 2018-2019” shows that 19 percent of its Class of 2022 is comprised of legacy students.)

It’s important to note that schools may differ in who they consider legacy students. Generally speaking, students receive “legacy” status if their parents or grandparents are alumni. But some schools consider other familial connections.

Below, we’ve gathered and summarized research that examines college admissions preferences for student athletes and legacies. Because there isn’t a lot of peer-reviewed research on the topic, we’re including several older studies. David Welch Suggs Jr., an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who is associate director of the school’s Grady Sports Media Initiative, said scholars have focused more heavily in recent years on other aspects of college admissions. “Equity, both racial and gender, and other issues have been more pressing from a policy perspective, although athletics represents an understudied area,” he told Journalist’s Resource in an email interview.

Suggs and Lucido recommended several books that tackle these topics, including Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values by William Bowen and Sarah Levin, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel and The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks and Richard Zeckhauser.


“Weeds in the Ivy: College Admissions Under Preference Constraints”
Weisman, Dennis L.; Li, Dong. Applied Economics, 2017.

Summary: Critics of race-based affirmative action in college admissions argue that eliminating such policies would allow colleges to admit more high-performing students, resulting in a “more able” student body, explain two researchers from Kansas State University and the University of Texas at Dallas. They designed a statistical model and ran numerical simulations to test that argument. Their big takeaway: Abandoning policies that give minority students preference in admissions decisions might only free up seats for legacy students. “The change in admissions policy may serve only to ensure that more admissions are available for ‘sale’ to wealthy alumni through legacy preferences, thereby giving rise to even less-able, non-merit admissions or weeds in the Ivy,” they write.

The two researchers simulated the decisions that a rational college administrator would make if he or she could choose how many student seats to set aside for minority students, the children of alumni and students admitted based on merit. Assuming this administrator would want to maximize the college’s endowment while also maximizing the ability level of the student body, he or she could divvy up these seats in different ways, including increasing the share of legacy students. Admissions officers could open more spots to the children of alumni “to bolster endowments amidst challenging fiscal times,” the authors explain.

“While it is conceivable that the ‘currency of merit’ would replace the ‘currency of race’ in the admissions process, it is perhaps no less plausible to believe that the ‘currency of dollars’ would play a more prominent role in the college admissions calculus,” they write.


“Are Admissions Decisions Based on Family Ties Fairer Than Those That Consider Race? Social Dominance Orientation and Attitudes Toward Legacy vs. Affirmative Action Policies”
Gutiérrez, Angélica S.; Unzueta, Miguel M. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013.

Summary: This study aims to understand public opinion about two college admission policies — race-based affirmative action, which tends to benefit black and Latino students, and giving preference to legacy students, who tend to be white. The two researchers, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the University of California, Los Angeles, investigate attitudes through two small experiments.

The first experiment tests whether people’s attitudes toward these two policies are influenced by their desire to preserve the current racial hierarchy in American society. The researchers surveyed 80 young adults, who were primarily Asian or white and recruited from an online database maintained at UCLA, on their views of different racial groups. Participants also were randomly assigned to complete a second survey, which focused on one of the two admission policies. The results indicate that individuals who support the current racial hierarchy were likely to support giving admission boosts to legacy students and oppose affirmative action. The researchers say the results may actually reflect participants’ preference for a policy that they believe would benefit them and people like them. “It is possible that these findings reflect a desire to protect the ingroup and not status hierarchies per se,” the researchers write.

In the second experiment, the researchers tried to assess whether survey participants would support legacy preferences that benefit a racial group other than their own. The researchers surveyed 54 Asian individuals ranging in age from 18 to 35 and found that those who expressed support for maintaining the current racial hierarchy also showed support for legacy preferences that primarily benefit white students. There was no statistically significant relationship between support for the racial hierarchy and support for legacy preferences that primarily benefit Asian students.

The authors say their work suggests that “individuals motivated to maintain social inequality support legacy policies because these policies are thought to benefit the dominant racial group and, by extension, maintain racial inequality.” Their findings also “cast further doubt on the idea that attacks on affirmative action are purely based on the desire to uphold the principle of meritocracy,” they write.


“The Impact of Legacy Status on Undergraduate Admissions at Elite Colleges and Universities”
Hurwitz, Michael. Economics of Education Review, 2011.

Summary: A Harvard University researcher estimates the admission rates of legacy students based on an analysis of admissions decisions at 30 “highly selective” schools, 12 of which were private liberal arts colleges and 18 of which were private research universities. He also examines admission rates for two categories of legacy students — those whose parents are alumni and those with other familial ties to the school. Some schools, for example, consider applicants to be legacy students if their grandparents are alumni or their siblings are current students.

The scholar examined data for 294,457 applicants for undergraduate admission in for the fall semester of 2007. He finds that legacy students, as a group, have a major advantage over other students, but that advantage varies quite a bit from institution to institution. At one unnamed school, the odds of admission for legacy students were 15.69 times the odds of admission for students without legacy status. Across all 30 schools in the study, the odds of admission for legacy students were, on average, 3.13 times higher than that of other students. The author writes: “If the non-legacies were awarded an odds admissions advantage of 3.13, their predicted acceptance rate would increase by 23.3 percentage points (Table 3), from 19.0 percent to 42.3 percent.”

For this sample, legacy students’ math and reading scores on the SAT were slightly higher, on average, than scores for applicants who did not have legacy status. However, the data indicate that family ties benefit weaker students, too. “The presence of odds admissions advantages greater than 2 in the 1250–1290 SAT score range suggests that even relatively weak applicants may enjoy special preference,” the author writes. A 1600 is a perfect score on the math and reading sections of the SAT.

He also finds that the children of alumni enjoy an advantage over other legacy students. Almost 44 percent of students whose parents are alumni were accepted, compared with 31.4 percent of students with other familial ties.


“Capital Conversion and Accumulation: A Social Portrait of Legacies at an Elite University”
Martin, Nathan D.; Spenner, Kenneth I. Research in Higher Education, 2009.

Summary: Two researchers at Duke University take a close look at the characteristics of legacy students at their institution and compare them with Duke students whose parents are not alumni. Their analysis, based on college records and students’ answers to a mail questionnaire, finds that legacy students are predominantly white, wealthy and Protestant and graduates of private high schools. About 44 percent of the legacies studied have SAT scores below their class average. “In this manner,” the authors write, “legacies largely represent constituencies who controlled elite colleges and universities before the expansion of American higher education and concurrent rise of meritocracy in the early- and mid-twentieth century.”

Here’s what else the researchers found: Of all the student groups studied, legacies were least likely to major in the natural sciences or plan to become an engineer, scientist or medical doctor. They were more likely to major in humanities. They also were more likely to be uncertain about their education and work plans. “At the end of the fourth year [of college], legacies are most likely to report plans other than school or work for the fall immediately following graduation, and are least likely to report future occupational plans,” the authors write. Legacies also were most likely to say they will use family or personal contacts for their post-graduation plans.


“The Effects of America’s Three Affirmative Action Programs on Academic Performance”
Massey, Douglas S.; Mooney, Margarita. Social Problems, 2007.

Summary: In this study, two Princeton University scholars examine admissions programs at elite schools that give preferential treatment to three groups of students: athletes, the children of alumni, and racial and ethnic minorities. The researchers wanted to test whether these three types of affirmative action programs create a “mismatch” — in other words, whether the skills of students who benefit from these programs fall short of what they need to succeed at these institutions.

The researchers analyzed academic data and admissions information for nearly 4,000 students who entered 28 selective colleges and universities as freshmen during the fall semester of 1999. The only evidence of mismatch they found applied to the children of alumni. Athletes and minorities did not earn lower grades or leave school at higher rates than other students.

“Affirmative action programs thus do not appear to set up either minorities or athletes for academic failure by dumping them unprepared into a very competitive academic environment,” the authors write. For legacy students, however, the larger the gap between the student’s SAT score and the school’s average SAT score, the lower the grades he or she earned.

The researchers did find that in schools “where athletic affirmative action was widely practiced,” athletes were more likely than other students to leave school before the end of their junior year. “We also found that in schools with a stronger commitment to legacy admissions, the children of alumni were more likely to drop out,” they write in the study. “With respect to minorities, however, we found opposite effects … the stronger an institution’s apparent commitment to affirmative action, the lower the likelihood minority students would leave school.”


“Admission Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities”
Espenshade, Thomas J.; Chung, Chang Y.; Walling, Joan L. Social Science Quarterly, 2004.

Summary: This study, also from researchers at Princeton, looks at who gets preferential treatment from admissions offices at elite colleges. At the three private research universities that were studied, admissions officers gave added weight to applicants who are recruited athletes, legacies, African Americans, Hispanics and students with SAT scores exceeding 1400.

The researchers analyzed 124,374 applications submitted to these three “academically selective” colleges and universities in the 1980s and in 1993 and 1997. They find that the “athlete advantage is weaker than the preference for African Americans, but stronger than the preference for Hispanic or legacy applicants,” the authors write. “The legacy preference, while substantial, is less than that shown to Hispanics.”

They authors explain that the bonus for athletes is roughly equivalent to an extra 200 SAT points, to 160 additional points for children of alumni, 230 points for African Americans and 185 points for Hispanics.


Looking for more higher education research? Check out our roundups of research on performance funding for colleges, the concealed carry of guns on campus and hunger among college students. We’ve also spotlighted a study that examines affirmative action based on students’ socioeconomic status.

Looking for story ideas on college admission rates? Here are a few worth considering:

  • The news media often report colleges’ admission rates, but this number is misleading for schools that give recruited athletes and legacy students a substantial edge. It might be helpful to let the public know what the chances of admission are for students who aren’t athletes and don’t qualify for legacy status.
  • It’s not well known that one of the factors many colleges consider when making admission decisions is how much interest an applicant has shown in the school — for example, whether he or she has attended an event on campus, completed a tour or visited the institution’s website. Colleges are using technology and other methods to track applicant interest, which can help them predict how likely a student will enroll after receiving an acceptance letter. Having a firm understanding of which students will enroll helps college officials in terms of planning and budgeting. Also, a college’s yield — the percentage of students who enroll after being accepted — is used in college rankings.
  • It might be interesting to compare the admission rates of different student groups at different types of universities. For example, do athletes have more of edge at elite schools or flagship universities with famed football teams?


This photo, from The Happy Rower, was obtained from Flickr and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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