How Legacy and Early Decision Benefits the White and Wealthy

by Emma Tayloe

As the admissions office prepares to announce its decisions, we as a Davidson community should think critically about our admission policies, especially if they give an advantage to certain groups of applicants over others. Last year, Davidson admitted early decision applicants at more than twice the rate of regular decision applicants. Furthermore, legacy applicants have an edge over non-legacies; when asked to speak to the role legacy status has in admission decisions, the Dean of Admissions explained that “the acceptance of the legacy students is typically about two times the regular admission rate of the college, yet appreciate that this preference is primarily given to those students that are applying under [the] early decision (binding) program.” Although it is conceivable that the children of Davidson graduates have above average college applications, I find it unlikely that legacies are qualified at twice the rate of the general population.

I believe that Davidson College grants certain students an advantage by sole virtue of their status as an early decision or legacy applicant and that this advantage unfairly benefits a population of students more likely to be white and wealthy.

Publishers of college rankings often take enrollment yield into account. Students admitted under early decision commit to enroll, whereas a regular decision applicant has the option to choose between schools. Colleges and universities can achieve a higher enrollment yield by admitting more early decision applicants over regular decisions. Legacy applicants may have an advantage in the application process for the same reason. They may be more likely than a non-legacy student to enroll in Davidson because of their personal connection with the school. It is possible that early decision and legacy applicants are given preferential admission because of their higher enrollment rates which could improve college rank, but how do higher college rankings benefit students?

Appearing on the U.S. News College rankings can increase the number of applicants for a college or university by as much as 10%, but a higher or lower rank on the list was not shown to have any effect on the number of applicants. Getting a spot on the list may lower Davidson’s acceptance rate and improve rank, but a higher ranking is not an end in itself. Although there is a correlation between college rank and alumni donations, there is no evidence that the relationship is causal. In fact, changes in college rank have no clear impact on hiring of graduates; the Chronicle of Higher Education conducted a study involving 50,000 employers and “college reputation” was found to be the eighth most important hiring factor. Researchers did not study the degree to which a change in college ranking affects “reputation.” If higher rankings don’t necessarily benefit students, then Davidson needs to find other justification for its admission policy.

The practice of offering preferential admission for legacy students and early decision applicants more than violates a general sense of fairness, it extends Davidson’s racist history.

Say ‘David’ previously owned a whites-only movie theater and was then forced to integrate. If he were to make it easier for his returning customers and their families to enter, no one would question the injustice and absurdity of his policy. I doubt that popular opinion would shift even if ‘David’ promised he had a “commitment to diversity and inclusivity.”

Currently, about 67% of Davidson students are white, compared to 58% of all college students in the United States. Davidson College did not admit its first black student until 1961, when, according to Charles McEwen’s 1967 Davidsonian article, in a “close vote,” the Board of Trustees decided to admit up to three African students per year. Eventually, the policy was amended to allow African-American students, but the integration process was slow. For decades, Davidson College operated as an exclusively or overwhelmingly white school. Legacy applicants can be assumed to come from overwhelmingly white families. Thus, the preferential admission of legacy students gives a distinct advantage to a group of applicants more likely to be white. That Davidson would maintain a policy that benefits a white population is especially troubling given our school’s history.

Davidson’s role in the oppression and exploitation of people of color extends beyond refusing to admit non-white students. Davidson was a school built by and for plantation and slave owners of the South. I don’t intend to assign personal responsibility to legacy students for the actions of their ancestors, but I do think that many indirectly benefit from slavery. I am a clear example: I am a legacy at Davidson. Until the Civil War, my family was one of the wealthiest in the country. My family owned a large plantation and hundreds of slaves.

Any advantage the admission office gave me during the application process for my legacy status perpetuates the injustice of slavery. I see no alternative but for Davidson College to stop taking legacy status into account during the admission process.

Preferential admission for early decision applicants benefits the wealthy, as well. The cost to attend Davidson exceeds $60,000. Although the school promises to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need, aid is often insufficient. According to the College Scoreboard, one in five students at Davidson has a federal student loan, with “typical total debt” of $16,385. Students who need to compare aid packages from multiple schools don’t have the luxury of applying early decision.

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The Single-Choice Early Action program employed by many top schools, including Yale University, could easily replace the early decision program. Students that apply to Yale’s Single-Choice Early Action cannot apply early decision or early action to any other school in the United States. The Yale admissions page explicitly states that the program “would still allow [applicants] to compare offers of financial aid in the spring,” which would address the advantage students from wealthier families have under the early decision system.

As a leading institution of higher education with a particularly shameful history, it is imperative that Davidson works to make the admissions process as fair as possible. Current policies give advantages to wealthy applicants and to a group that is disproportionately white. This breaches Davidson’s professed commitments to integrity, inclusivity and diversity.

Emma Tayloe is a sophomore at Davidson College from Arlington, Virginia. Her piece originally appeared in The Davidsonian.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.

This graphic above was created by Andrea Acevedo, The Contemporary‘s Art Director.

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