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Amherst College ends legacy admissions, aims to increase racial and income diversity

Hundreds of Amherst College students rallied against racism following the discovery of a noose on Pratt Field in 2017.
Diane Lederman
The Republican / masslive.com
Hundreds of Amherst College students rallied against racism following the discovery of a noose on Pratt Field in 2017.

Updated at 1:35 p.m. 

Amherst College has announced it will no longer consider what's called "legacy" when deciding whether to admit a student.

"Legacy" usually means a student's parent went to the school and the admission office considers that a plus.

Many critics say that policy works against racial and income equity, and perpetuates a more privileged student body.

There's been a recent national boycott against colleges that use legacy admissions, but Matt McGann, Amherst's Dean of Admissions, said the college has been considering the move for two years.

While 11% of current students are children of alumni, he said they all had to meet Amherst’s academic standards.

“I imagine that legacy students will continue to apply and will continue to get in,” McGann said. “But when they do so, it will be with no consideration to where their parents graduated from college.”

Historically, some colleges have worried they could lose alumni donations by eliminating legacy admissions.

McGann said Amherst chose not to focus on that possibility. He added that out of the many comments made on social media by Amherst students, faculty and alums, the majority have been positive.

But not all feedback has been positive.

“I mean, who doesn't understand wanting the best for one's children and family members?” Amherst College president Biddy Martin told WBUR. “There are reasons to be concerned and to ensure that our alumni and our legacy students realize how greatly appreciated they are. [But] we have so many alumni who believe in the importance of opportunity and access and who will welcome the decision. So it's not a monolith.”

Martin, who has announced her retirement at the end of the academic year, said she knows not all colleges are able to eliminate legacy admissions.

“Every institution is dealing with different variables, and those different variables can matter,” Martin said. “So we're not going to be self-righteous about this and especially not in relation to those institutions that don't have the endowment we have.”

A national database lists the other members of the Five Colleges Consortium in western Massachusetts as still using legacy in admissions, but the schools are pushing back on that claim.

A UMass Amherst spokesperson said the campus does not consider legacy when making admissions decisions. Same for Hampshire College.

“We don't have a policy that considers legacy in admissions,” spokesperson Jennifer Chrisler said.

Chrisler said she did not know if Hampshire had considered legacy in the past, and did not believe she could find out because of the institutional turnover at Hampshire in recent years.

“All I can say is we don't do it now,” she said.

Smith College confirmed it does consider legacy.

“Smith does not have a separate process for legacy applicants. But the application does ask for information about family connections,” spokesperson Stacey Schmeidel said in an email. “That information is one of many factors considered as part of the holistic application review, along with other factors including significant artistic or athletic talent, first-generation college status, etc.”

Mount Holyoke College has not responded to messages left Wednesday.

In the Berkshires, Williams College spokesperson Jim Reische said that institution gives “slight” preference to students whose parents are alum. He said there's no expectation of financial quid pro quo.

Reische disagrees with critics who say legacy admissions reduce diversity.

“You have people coming here who ... are the first in their family to go to college. And you have others who may have had a generations-long relationship with Williams,” he said. “And we think that that's a valuable mix, just like other kinds of diversity in the class.”

Reische said without more aggressive action, like generous financial aid, elite colleges will continue to favor privileged students, no matter where their parents studied.

“We cover the full cost of [eligible] students' books and course materials. We don't charge them for their summer earnings contribution, which is a standard part of financial aid practice in a lot of places. We cover their health insurance, we cover summer storage, we cover the cost of trips home,” he said. “Those things have a far greater impact on individual students and our student body as a whole than a small change like this would ever make.” 

Reische said Amherst College's decision to end legacy admissions did spark discussion at Williams about its own policy, “but that conversation has not led to a plan to change anything right now. Could it in the future? It's always possible.”

Also on Wednesday, Amherst College also announced it would be expanding financial aid and simplifying the financial application process — another move McGann said is part of the institution’s effort to increase racial and ethnic diversity. Amherst has reported that just over half of its newest freshman class identify as students of color.

McGann said he didn’t know for sure whether eliminating legacy admissions would also improve racial diversity, since he didn’t know how many current legacy students are white.

“The parents of students now, many of them graduated from college in the early 1990s, and the population at Amherst was a little bit different then,” McGann said. “Certainly it is not true that all of our legacy students are white or affluent. Our legacy students reflect the diversity of a previous generation of Amherst College.”

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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